When facing spinal fusion surgery, fear about how long recovery takes can seem almost as daunting as the back problem itself. But with lateral lumbar interbody fusion (LLIF), time is on your side.
LLIF is a type of spinal surgery that's performed through the side of the body rather than through the back. As a result, there is less disruption to muscles and nerves in the area. This helps patients recover faster and better from spinal fusion surgery.
You might also hear LLIF referred to as direct lateral interbody fusion (DLIF) or extreme lateral interbody fusion (XLIF). By any name, it's a form of spinal fusion surgery—a procedure to unite two vertebrae (bones in the spine) that have shifted out of place or have developed severe arthritis.
During the procedure, the worn-out natural disk (cushioning pad) between the vertebrae is removed and replaced with a manmade spacer. After the surgery, the vertebrae fuse together as healing occurs.
"LLIF is a less invasive way of doing the spinal fusion procedure," says Michael Murray, MD, a spine surgeon at Main Line Health who has performed hundreds of these operations.
“In the right patients, LLIF has a more than 90% success rate at relieving this kind of pain,” Dr. Murray says.
Why LLIF is better than conventional spine surgery
Dr. Murray notes that LLIF has several advantages over traditional surgery, including:
- Less blood loss during surgery
- Shorter hospital stays
- Faster recovery after surgery
"In my experience, LLIF cuts the recovery time nearly in half," says Murray. "I had one patient who returned to rock climbing just three months after undergoing LLIF."
Who benefits from LLIF?
"Almost anyone who needs a spinal fusion can have it done this way," Murray says. Two common reasons for the surgery are:
- Spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a vertebra shifts out of position and onto the bone below it
- Scoliosis, a sideways curve of the spine
These conditions may cause back and/or leg pain. Nonsurgical approaches—such as medications, injections and physical therapy—are the first line of treatment. But if the pain persists, LLIF offers an alternative. It's particularly helpful for pain that shoots down the leg.
"In the right patients, LLIF has a more than 90% success rate at relieving this kind of pain," Dr. Murray says.