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Setting the Record Straight: Common Thoughts About Spine Surgery

Dr. Michael A. Gleiber

There are a lot of common beliefs about spine surgery that are false, or only partially true. It is important that you are well-informed before making any decisions about your health care. When in doubt, always consult a healthcare professional to get the answers you need.

Here are some common thoughts people have about spine surgery. Did you know the right answers?

Surgery is the only way to cure my back pain.

Answer: False. The majority of conditions in the spine can be resolved with nonsurgical treatment, such as over-the-counter pain relievers, hot/cold therapy, and physical therapy. Most patients will not need surgery to relieve their back pain. Unless your condition is severe, or you have adverse symptoms like instability, incontinence, an inability to walk, numbness, tingling, or changes in neurologic function, your doctor will try to treat your condition without surgery first.

Surgery will completely relieve my back pain.

Answer: Sometimes. Following surgery, most patients are able to return to their normal activities. However, while spine surgery can correct problems in the spine, restoring function and reducing pain, not all patients will experience complete relief from pain. An accurate diagnosis increases your chances that surgery will be successful. It is also important for patients to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Patients who don’t quit smoking or maintain their weight may find that their pain returns.

If I have surgery once, I’ll need to have surgery again in the future.

Answer: Usually, no. Complex spinal trauma may require multiple surgical procedures to restore stability and function. Aside from those extreme cases, most people will only need one surgery. Your doctor may suggest certain exercises or lifestyle changes to keep your spine in good shape post-surgery.

My recovery from spine surgery will be long and painful.

Answer: False. Patients will need to rest for at least a few days, but many are able to return to work within a week of surgery. Your doctor will work with you to help you manage pain during recovery. If you undergo minimally invasive spine surgery, you may even be able to go home the day of your surgery. Minimally invasive spine surgery also allows for a quicker recovery time by using smaller incisions and splitting the muscles in the back along the natural muscle planes.

Minimally invasive techniques can be used for most procedures.

Answer: True. A wide variety of spinal conditions can be treated with minimally invasive surgery. While minimally invasive techniques aren’t used for every procedure, they are used for the majority of procedures, whenever possible. Because minimally invasive surgery allows patients to get back to their normal activities quicker than open surgery, it is usually the preferred method.

Minimally invasive surgery is always the best option for spine surgery.

Answer: False. While minimally invasive surgery is generally recommended whenever possible, surgical indications will vary based on the individual patient’s needs. In some cases, it is better to proceed with more traditional surgical techniques. If the surgeon feels the outcome will not be equal or better with minimally invasive surgery, more traditional techniques may be used.

It is important to get the facts straight when making decisions about your health care. If you have any questions about spine surgery for Dr. Gleiber, feel free to contact him or tweet him @GleiberMD.