Spine Surgery – When is it Right for YOU?

The decision to undergo surgical treatment for a spine condition is personal, and should be an informed one

When a spine condition has escalated to the stage where surgery becomes a final option, many patients have crucial considerations. After all, the decision to undergo elective surgery of any type is highly personal and challenging for most. Unless it’s for a traumatic spine injury, in which case surgery is the only option, many people who arrive at a spine surgery conclusion have done so after years of pain and attempting just about every other non-surgical alternative under the sun. 

The bravery involved in making a significant and personal decision for one’s health cannot be understated. Many people are far stronger than they give themselves credit for and, in the case of spine conditions specifically, will often “live with” debilitating pain for far longer than they should. In some cases, this is because they just weren’t yet ready to consider surgical treatment options. And that’s perfectly OK. Such a decision must come from the patient – not from their doctor or their loved ones. I can often tell when someone has come to me for surgical advice about a spine condition because someone else told them to. There’s no magic bullet when it comes to being “ready” for spine surgery. But there are some excellent questions to answer along the way that can help each individual arrive at the informed decision that feels right for them.

What else have you tried? As previously mentioned, surgery isn’t a first-step treatment option for most spinal conditions. It’s usually and should always be a last resort. More than ever, there are so many non-surgical options for various back pain conditions that can help a person avoid surgery. When they make sense for the spine condition in question and under the watchful eye and guidance from a certified medical specialist, these options should always be considered and attempted first. 

Have you considered a second opinion? In my practice, I am sometimes the second, third, or fourth medical opinion on a spine problem. Contrary to what some might believe, I think that’s a great thing. Spine surgery is serious. It should be seriously considered. Many of us get second opinions on our cars, home repairs, and more. We all have only this one body to live with. A second opinion on how to care for it isn’t a bad thing and as physicians, we should always encourage our patients to receive one or two. If a surgeon bristles at your request for a second opinion, you should take that heavily into consideration if you do choose to undergo surgery. An experienced spine surgeon will understand, and most will encourage due diligence.

Are YOU committed? Spine surgery isn’t a quick fix for back pain or spine problems. Though the procedure itself is in the hands of the surgeon and his team, the road to recovery is just as important. How that road is traveled is mainly up to the patient. Most surgical correction for spine conditions requires extensive physical therapy post-recovery and other rehabilitative exercises and lifestyle changes. People considering spine surgery should also evaluate their commitment to rehabilitation in addition to the merit of the surgeon or the efficacy of the spine procedure they’re considering. 

What does your ‘gut’ tell you? Gut feelings aren’t scientific. But they matter – a lot. Scientific research has shown us that people who believe in their spine surgery decisions and the surgeon performing the procedure tend to have better outcomes. Patients who are confident in their choices tend to experience fewer complications post-surgery, adhere to post-surgery recommendations better, and often have a quicker recovery. So, ‘going with your gut’ is a critical factor in ultimate spine surgery success.

At first glance, the four questions mentioned above may not seem all that significant when evaluating whether spine surgery is the right choice for you. But let me assure you, they are and can make all the difference. And while we have a tendency to get “in the weeds” of online medical research, Dr. Google may cause more harm than good.  I often find that patients who extensively research procedures or treatments for their back pain are often simply trying to answer one or more of the above questions. Once they do, they’re usually far more ready for the next step than a deep dive into clinical studies will ever take them.

So take a deep breath and relax because you are closer to resolving your back than you once thought. Please remember, as spine specialists, we are on your side and want to do everything in our power to help you feel better so you can return to living the life you once enjoyed.

Neel Anand MD