Dr. Paul Saiz
Mesa, AZ
As with any neck surgery paralysis is a risk but thankfully fairly rare. Other risks include failure of the fusion to heal, failure of instrumentation, throat soreness, hoarseness, adjacent segment disease.
Dr. Douglas Slaughter
Mesa, AZ
Any time we operate on the cervical spine, there is a slight risk for paralysis, continued nerve root injury, non-union of the fusion, failure of the instrumentation, and hardware loosening. Also, in anterior cervical surgery, there is a chance of significant bleeding and injury to a nerve that goes to your voice box.
Dr. Joseph Alexander
Winston-Salem, NC
Once again, it is difficult to address this in general terms. It depends on whether the surgery is being done through the front or the back of the neck and what surgical technique is being employed. This would be better addressed between the patient and their physician after review of the history, physical examination and imaging studies, and after surgical planning had been completed.
Dr. Kevin Yoo
Escondido, CA
The risks associated with spinal surgery can be divided into two groups: minor risks and major risks. The minor risks for the most part are treatable and reversible and occur less than five percent of the time. The major risks are for the most part difficult to treat and may be irreversible and occur less than one percent of the time. The minor risks include: infection, hoarseness, bleeding, and cerebrospinal fluid leaks. The major risks include nerve and spinal cord damage.
Dr. Brian Subach
Atlanta, GA
The three most common risks are bleeding (unlikely to require transfusions), infection (less than 1%), and damage to the spinal cord or nerve roots. In general, cervical surgery is very safe.
Dr. Moe R. Lim
Chapel Hill, NC
The risks from anterior cervical spine surgery include bleeding, infection, neurologic compromise, anesthesia complications, non-union, swallowing difficulty, voice hoarseness, instrumentation failure, and need for future surgeries. It is up to you and your surgeon to decide whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks in your specific situation.
Dr. Sean Salehi
Chicago, IL
Heart attack, deep venous thrombosis, pulmonary embolus, infection, disc space infection, osteomyelitis (bone infection), hoarsness of voice, cerebrospinal fluid leakage, lack of pain relief, recurrence of symptoms are some of the more common but low probability risks for this surgery.
Dr. Rick Sasso
Indianapolis, IN
The most common risk associated with anterior cervical fusion is again related to the bone-graft donor-site harvest. Infection, bleeding, hematomas, actual fracture of the pelvis can occur if your own bone is harvested. In regards to the approach to the anterior cervical spine, the most common problem is hoarseness and maybe some swallowing difficulties, some dysphagia. There is a possibility of non-union of the bone pseudarthrosis. If that occurs, you may need a fusion actually from the back. There is a very, very small risk of other associated problems, including infection. It is very, very rare to have an infection in the anterior cervical spine, but it is possible. There is a possibility of a tracheoesophageal complications, which are caused by the breathing tube, swallowing tube very, very rare, but that's possible. And also the large blood vessels that run into our heads, possibility of stroke from those. Again, extremely uncommon that that would occur, but that is certainly a possible.
Dr. Mark R. McLaughlin
Princeton, NJ
There are no small operations in my book. With any surgery there is a risk of dying. It is usually not even related to the surgery being performed and most likely to be an anesthetic reaction or medical complication. Although this risk is extremely small, it is not zero. That is why surgery should never be taken lightly. More common risks like bleeding or infection are small. Usually only about a teaspoonful of blood is lost on an anterior cervical fusion and I cannot think of a patient that has required a transfusion for this operation. The infection rate for this surgery is less than 1%. Other risks include the bone graft not being incorporated into the patient¹s bone and hoarseness of the voice. These risks are also relatively low but range from 1-10% for single-level operations.
Dr. Theodore A. Belanger
Charlotte, NC
The risk of major complications -- such as death, paralysis, nerve injury, bleeding, infection, vocal cord paralysis, or spinal fluid leakage -- are extremely small, less than 1 percent altogether. Most patients have some swallowing difficulty after surgery, which usually resolves. For some, swallowing may be a persistent concern, but it is usually only a minor problem for them. Failure to fuse, implant failure, or the need for repeat surgery are complications that may occur up to 5% of the time. Bone-graft donor-site complications and discomfort can also occur if your own bone is harvested for the surgery.
Dr. Kambiz Hannani
Los Angeles, CA
Like any other surgery, spinal surgery carries the risk of infection, bleeding, need for transfusions, nerve damage, bowel, bladder, and sexual dysfunction as well as medical complications, such as heart attack, stroke, blood clots, or death. There is always the possibility of worsening the pain and requiring additional surgeries. In the hands of a properly trained spinal surgeon, however, these risks can be minimized.
Dr. Mark Testaiuti
Haddonfield, NJ
Bleeding (major or minor), infection, swelling of the airway, stroke, paralysis, failure of fusion, breakage of hardware or graft, paralysis of arm or both arms and/or legs, no relief or worsening pain.
Dr. Dennis G. Crandall
Mesa, AZ
Failure to improve is the most common. Less common complications include failure of fusion, infection, nerve root or spinal cord injury, difficulty swallowing, need for further surgery to extend the fusion, and injury to the adjacent structures in the neck.
Dr. W. Christopher Urban
Glen Burnie, MD
Cervical surgery is safe and has an overall complication rate of less than 5 percent when performed by a well-trained spinal surgeon. There are minor and major risks to any surgery that should be considered prior to undergoing the procedure. The risks that are specific to cervical surgery are related to working close to the carotid artery, esophagus, trachea, and spinal cord. Injury to these structures could lead to infection, bleeding, hoarseness, swallowing difficulty, nerve injury or paralysis. There is also a 5 to 10 percent chance of the bone not completely fusing, which is called a pseudoarthrosis. As with many other surgeries, there are also medical risks related to the stress of an operation and undergoing anesthesia.
Dr. B. Theo Mellion
Carbondale, IL
The success rate for this surgery is quite high. The success rate for relieving symptoms is around 97%. So 97% of the patients are basically satisfied with the surgical outcome. The fusion rate varies depending on the number of levels but still the satisfactory outcome is above 95%.
Dr. Sebastian Lattuga
Rockville Centre, NY
If these procedures are done by a certified spinal surgeon, then the risks are much less likely to occur. As with any surgical procedure, risks include but are not limited to: infection, bleeding, psuedoarthrosis, plate failure, dural tears, nerve injuries, chronic pain, swallowing difficulties, hoarseness, paralysis and death. The aforementioned risks are extremely rare and are uncommon in patients when the surgeries are performed by certified specialists.
Dr. Jeffrey C. Wang
Los Angeles, CA
Risks of this type of surgery are quite minimal. As with any surgery, there are risks of bleeding, infection, anesthesia risks, as well as the possibility the fusion will not take; however, these risks are extremely low.
Dr. Daniel Resnick
Madison, WI
The risks of surgery include first of all the risk of any type of surgery which is: bleeding, infection, and the risk of general anesthesia. Anterior approaches to the spine entail dissection through the anterior neck which involves structures such as the trachea, the esophagus, or the carotid arteries. Any of these structures could potentially be injured by the surgical approach. As well as removing the disc we are working right next the spinal cord and nerve roots and these structures could be injured as well causing worsened problems with weakness or numbness in the arms, as well as potential as bowel, bladder, or sexual dysfunction. In the vertebral artery is close by and can also be injured during discectomy and this could result in a life threatening stroke. The of a serious complication from a cervical discectomy is extremely low and most serious reported complication rates are in the 1-3% range.
Dr. Allan Levi
Miami, FL
The risks of anterior cervical discectomy and fusion are relatively low, however, risks include, but are not limited to: infection, bleeding, cerebral spinal fluid leak, failure of fusion, nerve injury, spinal cord injury, difficulties with swallowing, hoarseness of voice, and the risk of the general anesthetic.
Dr. David S. Baskin
Houston, TX
All surgery has risks, including bleeding, infection, and damage to the structures in the area that are being operated. The complication rate in experienced hands is less than 5% for most routine surgery, including fusions, done either from the front or the back. My own complication rate is less than 1%.
Dr. Randy Davis
Glen Burnie, MD
There is a list of multiple risks. The most common of which is trouble swallowing with an anterior approach and difficulty with healing. The risk of paralysis, or very serious complications, is much less than 1-2%, but never zero. That is why any surgery is a serious procedure and all patients should consider the non-operative options before considering it.
Dr. Timothy C. Ryken
Iowa City, IA
Injury to the nervous system is the most concerning. This may mean paralysis, loss of sensation, loss of bowel and bladder control or even sexual function.
Dr. Robert S. Pashman
Los Angeles, CA
There are risks associated with any surgical procedure. Risks associated with cervical surgery include but are not limited to: inter-operative complications, infection, bleeding, hardware failure, hoarseness, paralysis and death.

The commentary above recounts the experiences of these physicians. Medtronic invited them to share their stories candidly. Keep in mind that results vary; not every patient's response is the same. Talk with your doctor to learn more about any products that are mentioned above.

It is important that you discuss the potential risks, complications and benefits of spinal surgery with your doctor prior to receiving treatment, and that you rely on your doctor's judgment. Only your doctor can determine whether you are a suitable candidate for this treatment.

Published: May 04, 2007
Updated: April 19, 2010