There’s sometimes a need to help fluid around the spine flow and drain properly. One way to do this is with a device known as a spinal shunt. Also referred to as a lumbar shunt, a spinal shunt is inserted into the spine to facilitate fluid transfer and drainage. It’s often used to help with the flow of the clear, colorless protective fluid in the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid). Here’s what you need to know about spinal shunts.
A lumbar-peritoneal (LP) shunt is the most common type of spinal shunt. LP shunts are typically used to maintain sufficient levels of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in and around the spinal canal by preventing too much fluid from gathering in certain areas. Levels are sometimes affected by some type of spinal trauma, a genetic abnormality, or damage from a spine-related operation or procedure, such as anterior lumbar interbody fusion. Santa Monica patients can expect to have a lumbar puncture (“spinal tap”) performed to determine if there’s a disruption to the flow of CSF. If too much CSF collects in one spot, it may produce symptoms such as:
• Localized discomfort
• Chronic headaches
• Nausea, vomiting, or dizziness
If it’s determined a spinal shunt is needed to restore normal CSF flow, the device is placed between two adjacent vertebrae in the lumbar (lower) spine. It’s inserted in an area around the spinal cord referred to as subarachnoid space, which is where cerebrospinal fluid is located.
The other end of the shunt is directed at the peritoneal cavity. This is a place in the abdomen where extra CSF is normally absorbed by organs and sent out of the body through natural processes. The shunt ensures cerebrospinal fluid drains in the right location so it can be expelled from the body instead of pooling. Typically, only two small incisions—one in the lower back and the other in the abdomen—are needed to insert the device.
A spinal shunt is intended to remain in place indefinitely because it can be difficult to determine if CSF would continue to flow and drain normally if the shunt were removed. It’s possible to remove a shunt briefly to see if it’s still needed before inserting it again if necessary. However, most surgeons prefer to err on the side of caution and leave the device in place rather than putting patients through the process of trying to figure out if it’s still needed.
The spinal shunt basically acts like a drain, so it’s possible it could be draining fluid too quickly or too slowly. If there are signs this is the case, revision surgery may be performed to make appropriate adjustments. This is sometimes a trial-and-error process, since it can be difficult to precisely adjust CSF flow.
A spinal shunt may be recommended if your spine-related symptoms are believed to be primarily caused by cerebrospinal fluid pooling or not flowing normally. Possible complications associated with shunt placement include infection, blockage, and fluid-draining issues. However, patients are usually carefully monitored after the device is inserted to reduce the risk of unexpected problems and identify issues early so adjustments can be made.
The best way to discover if you need a spinal shunt is to consult an experienced Santa Monica spine surgeon for proper diagnosis. The pioneering spinal health experts at The Spine Institute have unparalleled expertise in every component of spine health. To schedule a consultation, give us a call today at 310-828-7757.