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Back Pain Surgery: Myths and Facts That Get Back to the Basics

Crash Course: Back Surgery

Here are three of the most common types of back surgery:

  • Diskectomy: Removing the herniated (slipped/bulged) portion of a disk (shock absorbers between your back bones). This can involve either partial or full removal of the lamina — the back portion of a bone — to access the disk.
  • Laminectomy: Removing damaged bones and disks to make more room for the spinal column and nerves.
  • Fusion: Permanently connecting two or more bones in the spine.

That nagging back pain just won’t go away — and your physician has said that surgery is your best bet.

You might be thrilled at the prospect of finally relieving the pain. You might be terrified at the thought of surgery. You might be confused about whether or not to get the surgery at all.

Or, you might be all of the above.

The first thing to do is to sort out the myths and facts surrounding back surgery:

Myth: All Back Surgery is Considered Major Surgery.

Fact: Your back is such a large part of your body, that it might seem like any surgery on it would be major.

However, there are actually back conditions that can be treated with minimally invasive surgery — an approach where the surgeon uses just a few small cuts instead of large incisions.

Conditions that may qualify you for minimally invasive surgery include:

  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Herniated (also called bulges, ruptured, or slipped) disc
  • Spinal deformities, such as scoliosis
  • Spinal instability
  • Spinal infections
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis
  • Vertebral compression fractures
  • Spinal tumors

Myth: Surgery Doesn’t Work, Since Some Patients Need More Surgeries Down the Road.

Fact: When it comes to back pain, surgery can be a lifesaver for many patients. Success rates vary by type of procedure, but they tend to be impressive. For example, spine surgery for lower back or leg pain has a success rate of between 70 to 90 percent, depending on the specific condition being treated.

There are times when you may need a second surgery. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the surgery didn’t work the first time. It may mean that a different part of your back is actually causing your pain, or that an entirely new problem has arisen.

Myth: If Surgery Is a Success, I’ll Feel Better Right Away.

Fact: Recovery time is different for every patient, and it often depends on the type of surgery. For example, recovery for diskectomies (removing all or part of a disk) generally takes just a few weeks. But spinal fusion (fusing two bones together) and laminectomies (removing small bones or bone spurs) are major procedures, and can have a recovery period of three to four months.

Listen closely to your surgeon’s recommendations for follow-up care. Trying to go back to normal activity too quickly, skipping prescribed physical therapy, or pushing yourself to drive in the first two weeks post-surgery won’t speed up the healing process. You may end up hurting yourself more, and actually set your progress back.

Myth: Anyone with Severe Back Pain Can Benefit from Surgery.

Fact: Even though surgery can be very beneficial for people with severe back pain, not everyone is the ideal candidate.

Is Surgery Right for Me?

Surgery is most successful in patients who have:

  • Difficulty standing or walking
  • Worsening leg numbness or weakness
  • Limited activity levels
  • Loss of normal bowel or bladder function
  • No success with physical therapy or medication
  • Relatively good health, other than the back pain

Myth: What the Surgeon Says, Goes.

Fact: Surgeons are experts, and are trained to recommend whether or not you need surgery. But not all surgeons have the same opinion.

When one surgeon suggests surgery, and another does not, that doesn’t mean that either is wrong — it just means they have different ideas about how to approach your back pain.

If a surgeon suggests surgery, and you’re not quite so sure about it, you can always seek a second opinion. Your surgeon won’t be upset or offended — surgery is a major decision, and you need to be well-informed and confident in your decision.

Read More on Back and Joint Pain

After Back or Joint Surgery: Caring For Your Loved One
When is Joint Pain an Emergency?

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