Martin Murphy

Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion

PLIF a.k.a. "lumbar fusion"

Why am I in pain?

The most likely cause of your pain is compression of the spinal nerves by a combination of overgrown ligaments, prolapsed disc and overgrown bony spurs within the spinal canal, which together cause compression of the lumbar nerve roots. The spinal cord is not being pinched - it ends approximately 2 inches above where your problem lies. Movement of one bone over the other causes terrible back pain, and this movement also further narrows the spinal canal and the exit foraminae where the nerve roots exit. This movement is known as "spondylolisthesis".


You will drift off to sleep under general anaesthesia in a safe and controlled fashion by an anaesthetist. Whilst you are under anaesthesia you will not feel any pain, nor will you be aware of time passing. Having cleaned your lower back in a sterile fashion, an incision about 4 inches long in your lower back will allow us to push the muscles off of the bones surrounding the spinal nerve roots.

Screws will be put into the bones above and below the unstable level/levels, with strong connecting rods between the screws. The nerves will be exposed through the removal of portions of the 5 bones of your lower back. The ligaments causing the nerve compression and any bony spurs will also be removed. The disc at the unstable level will be fully removed, and will be replaced with an implant to help fusion between the two bones.

Once the nerves have been successfully decompressed, the wound will be stitched up, and the anaesthetist will allow you to wake up in a safe manner. The procedure itself will take approximately three hours, but your stay in the operating room environs may be a little longer than this.

What are the potential benefits of this procedure?

The primary benefit of PLIF is to provide relief of neurogenic claudication ("numb painful legs") pain, in patients who have failed more conservative treatment options. A PLIF procedure fuses the bones together, stopping unwanted excess movement, and removes pressure off of the lumbar nerve roots. The reduction and fusion of the spondylolisthesis will relieve back pain caused by unwanted movement of the vertebrae.

What are the potential risks of this procedure?

The main risks particularly associated this procedure are spinal fluid leak, infection, failure of your symptoms to improve, worsening of your symptoms, a recurrence of your symptoms, damage to the spinal nerves with resultant weakness of your leg muscles, a progression degeneration at other joint levels requiring further surgery, or damage to your bladder and bowel continence. A more extensive list of risks is detailed on the consent form.

Will my symptoms be reversed?

The majority of patients with back pain and leg pains do experience significant pain relief. Nobody but you knows how much pain you're experiencing. If you've tried other treatments, and your pain is interfering with your life, then the decision is up to you........

Are there alternatives to surgery?

Alternatives to PLIF / lumbar fusion would include physiotherapy, nerve root injections & epidural injections by a pain management specialist. These are successful in alleviating the pain temporarily in approximately 50% of cases. Whilst you can walk perhaps for 15 minutes now without stopping, next year you may find you can only walk for 10 minutes, and the year after 5 minutes.

In other words this condition is progressive in the vast majority of cases. Decompressing the nerve roots without fusing the bones can in fact worsen the slipping/"spondylolisthesis" resulting in a worsening of your back pain.

How long will be my expected hospital stay be?

You will be admitted to hospital on the morning of surgery, and will be discharged home within 7 days. You will need to get somebody to drive you home from the hospital on the day of discharge. You will need somebody to help you around the house once you're discharged from hospital.

Some people stay with sons/daughters/relatives; others prefer to have stay temporarily at a nursing home of their choosing. This ought to be arranged by you or your family before you undergo the surgery.

How long will my expected recovery be?

The stitches used to close the wound are dissolvable - you will not need to get them removed. You will receive a telephone call during the first week home from our secretary to confirm that all is proceeding as we expected. You will have a stiff sore back for the first 4 weeks after this procedure, but by the time you are reviewed in the clinic this should be improving.

Typically an improvement in your leg or foot pain will be the first benefit you will notice after this procedure, next an improvement in any "pins-and-needles", and lastly an improvement in any numbness (this may take a number of months or may in fact persist permanently).

Once your back has fused properly your back pain ought to be much improved. The scar will fade to a dull white mark over the next 12 months.

How long before I return to work?

Desk-work people are advised to refrain from returning to full-employment for 2 months. Housewives (and house-husbands!) need a similar period of time to recover also. People with flexible work hours, and those that can complete their duties whilst standing upright may return to work after 6 weeks.

People who return to work too early have been shown to experience a greater degree of long-term back pain.

How long before I return to sports?

Patients can usually return to jogging in approximately 3 months, though each case will need to be judged on it's individual merits, taking factors such as the athlete's age, particular athletic activity, and body habitus into account.

When will I need to be seen in the clinic again?

You will be reviewed in the clinic after 6 weeks, and again 3 months later to confirm that your recovery has proceeded satisfactorily, and that further imaging tests or therapies are not required. You will have been given a regime of low-back muscle exercises by the physiotherapy department - it is important that these exercises become as regular a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth!

Tell me what worrying symptoms I need to look out for whilst I'm recovering

Should you experience any unusual symptoms or signs either prior to your surgery or during your subsequent recovery period you must contact our office line immediately. Should that not be possible, we would advise you to seek immediate medical advice from a registered medical practitioner.

Urinary or faecal incontinence, urinary retention, constipation, difficulty breathing or completing sentences, new-onset numbness or leg weakness, a painful calf or thigh (especially if red or swollen) are all reasons to call us immediately, or to go to your local hospital emergency department.

Always tell your surgeon if you are taking Aspirin, Disprin, Plavix (Clopidrogel), Warfarin, Dipyridamole (Persantine), Asasantin, Aggrenox or if your medical condition has changed in any respect in the period of time prior to your procedure.

What if I haven’t any health insurance?

How costly is surgery if I don't have any health insurance?

If you haven’t any health insurance cover, then spinal surgery in a private hospital can be expensive. My secretary can call the hospitals and get an all-in price for any procedures that I may recommend.

Whilst spinal surgery is expensive, the cost of not being able to work to full capacity is often more financially debilitating.


  • Suite 16 Blackrock Clinic : Alternate Mondays
  • Suite 15 Beacon Hospital: Alternate Mondays
  • Affidea Clinic in Kilkenny: Tuesday once a month

Can I be seen in the public system?

Yes. I would be very happy to see you and treat you in the public health system also in Tallaght University Hospital or Naas General Hospital. An unfortunate result of decades of inadequate resourcing of both the hospital network in general, and spinal surgery specifically, is an admittedly unacceptable long waiting time both to be seen in the outpatients clinic and to be operated on. All patients are seen and operated on on the basis of clinical need.

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