What Is A Spinal Shunt?

Category: Spine | Author: Stefano Sinicropi

Spinal Shunt

A spinal shunt, also sometimes referred to as a lumbar shunt, is a device that is inserted into a person’s spine so that bodily fluids can be directed from one area to another area of the body. Oftentimes they are used to help facilitate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid from one area of your spine to another. The most common type of a lumbar shunt is what’s known as a lumbar-peritoneal (LP) shunt. That’s the type of shunt we’ll focus on in today’s blog.

LP Shunt Uses and Goals

As we alluded to in the intro paragraph, LP shunts are usually used to help keep appropriate levels of cerebrospinal fluid in the the spinal canal. During a normal lumbar-peritoneal shunt operation, the device will be inserted between two vertebrae in the lumbar portion of your spine into the area surrounding your spinal cord. This area is known as your subarachnoid space, and it is filled with cerebrospinal fluid.

If a shunt is required, this subarachnoid location is likely dealing with an overabundance of cerebrospinal fluid, which can cause a whole range of problems from localized discomfort to chronic headaches and more. The second end of the shunt is then routed to the peritoneal cavity, which is an area in your abdomen where excess cerebrospinal fluid drains in order to be absorbed by the organs and eventually expelled by the body. The fluid then drains through this shunt in order to end up in the correct location where it can be removed from the body.

It may sound complex, but most patients who have a shunt inserted only need to have two small incisions made on their body; one in the lower spine and one in the abdomen. Both incisions are about an inch or less in size.

Once the shunt is inserted, it will usually remain in the patient’s body forever. The main reason for this is because although they often grant relief, it’s hard to tell if a patient’s body would be able to continue getting rid of excess spinal fluid on its own if the shunt were removed. The only way to test that is to remove the shunt, and if you then found out spinal fluid was again pooling, you’d need to have the shunt put back in place, which is not ideal. So if it’s doing its job, the shunt will typically not be removed down the road.

In the event that you need to undergo a spinal shunt revision operation, the surgeon will go back into the cavity and make the necessary alterations. Revision surgery is not all that uncommon, and in some cases it is expected. Because the shunt is acting like a drain, there’s a chance that it’s removing the cerebrospinal fluid too quickly, or too slowly. Adjustments can be made to the shunt so your body maintains the correct level of fluid, but that can be difficult to pinpoint without seeing how your body responds to the shunt’s placement.

There are some minor potential complications associated with shunt placement surgery, including infection, blockage or fluid draining issues, but they are closely controlled for by your surgeon. So if you’ve been told that your discomfort is caused by cerebrospinal fluid pooling, talk to your doctor about your options and see if a spinal shunt may be able to get you back to the right levels of spinal fluid. For more information, reach out to Dr. Sinicropi’s office today.

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