Understanding Transforaminal Lumbar Interbody Fusion (TLIF)

A fusion is a surgery to join 2 or more bones together. During a transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF), this is done on the spine. Two of the bones of your back (vertebrae) are joined together, and the spinal disk between those vertebrae is removed.

Why is TLIF done?

You may need TLIF if you have a health condition such as:

  • Degenerative disk disease

  • Spinal stenosis

  • Spondylolisthesis

  • Scoliosis

  • Fracture of your spine

  • Infection of your spine

  • Tumor in your spine

These problems can cause a lot of pain. If pain medicines, physical therapy, or other treatments don’t work, fusion surgery may help relieve the pain.

How is TLIF done?

A surgeon can do an interbody fusion in several ways. TLIF is a minimally invasive surgery. This means it uses a smaller cut (incision) than other kinds of surgery. The surgery does not cut the muscles of your spine. This may help you to recover more quickly. It may also reduce the chance for some complications.

Your TLIF will be done by an orthopedic surgeon or a neurosurgeon.

  • An orthopedic surgeon is a doctor who specializes in treating bone, muscle, joint, and tendon problems.

  • A neurosurgeon is a doctor who specializes in treating nerve problems.

You will be positioned face down on the operating table. The surgeon will make 2 small cuts in the skin your back, 1 on each side of the spine. He or she will use special tools called retractors to push aside your back muscles. This lets the surgeon see the spine. The surgeon removes the disk. He or she puts a bone graft into the space between your vertebrae. The graft may be bone or a synthetic bone-like material. Special screws or other materials may be used to anchor your bones in place.

What are the risks of TLIF?

All surgery has risks. The risks of TLIF include:

  • Infection

  • Excess bleeding

  • Nerve damage

  • Blood clots

  • The bones may not fuse together well

  • Not enough relief of pain

  • New pain at the site of surgery

A normal side effect of bone fusion is less flexibility of your spine. In most cases, this limits motion only a small amount and isn’t a major problem.

Your risks vary based on your age and general health. Talk with your healthcare provider about which risks apply most to you.