Neck & Spine
“My primary care physician referred me years ago. I have arthritis which has seriously damage my back. Few people realize I’ve had several back surgeries which restored my mobility and normal lifestyle.” — Cathy L.
Chronic back pain is incredibly common, affecting 8 percent of all adults in the United States to the point that they’re unable to perform certain everyday activities. But, how do you know if your pain needs back surgery?
While the types of back pain tend to get lumped together, back pain is categorized into different types, each with a wide variety of causes. Only some types of back pain can be treated surgically, while others cannot.
Understanding the different types of surgery for back pain, along with the conditions they address, can help you determine if your back pain needs back surgery.
We’ll walk you through what that feels like, how to treat it, and detail the recovery process in this post.
Whether a person is a good candidate for surgery will depend on individual circumstances. There are certain causes of back pain that can usually be treated with surgery. These include:
Surgery is rarely helpful for conditions like degenerative disc disease, where normal age-related wear and tear on spinal discs causes back pain.
There are many surgeries that can correct the conditions causing back pain. Some of the most common are:
Determining whether a patient is a good candidate generally starts with a conversation.
It’s important to go over not just a general medical history but also a detailed description of your symptoms — what makes them better or worse — along with what kinds of treatments have been tried. It’s recommended that people with back pain try more conservative treatments first.
They’ll also perform a physical exam, and if it seems like surgery may be an option, they can order advanced imaging like an MRI.
Recovery looks different depending on the type of surgery, with less invasive operations such as a microdiscectomy or laminectomy healing more quickly than spinal fusion.
But an overarching theme of recovery from any back surgery is that it will involve some level of discomfort — and it will take some time. Patience and diligence are keys to recovery and healing. Recommendations from your doctor may include different types of medications and possibly physical therapy.
The early stages of recovery centers around rest. While you’ll want to make sure that you don’t spend all day in bed to avoid muscle strength and flexibility loss, you’ll need plenty of rest to give your back time to heal before you gradually become active again.
Just as recovery varies according to the type of surgery, so do risk factors. Procedures performed from the front on the lumbar spine are associated with risks related to blood vessels and neurologic structures that sit in front of the spine, while surgeries done through a posterior approach to the spine generally involve a more controlled bleeding risk but may have longer recovery due to muscle healing.
Back surgery may also involve risk to the nerves, but that risk can be mitigated through monitoring nerve function and spinal cord function throughout the surgery.
Neck surgeries are usually done through the front of the neck, which can create some potential complications, including:
These complications will improve with time and/or conservative treatments.
Although surgery can help many people, it’s not right for everyone.
People whose symptoms are minimal should try more conservative treatments such as medicines and physical therapy before considering surgical options. Surgery isn’t recommended unless symptoms are significant and other treatments have failed.
What about those who worry that back surgery will limit them in their lives? The idea behind surgery isn’t to limit your lifestyle — it’s to enhance it. Surgery can remove barriers to people enjoying their lives by reducing pain and making symptoms of spinal injury more manageable.