May 24, 2024

You may have considered back surgery to ease your pain. Here’s what you need to know.

Most people experience back pain at some point in their lives. Often the discomfort is temporary. But for some people with an aching back, it can become chronic. Back pain can range from a mild annoyance to a severe problem that interferes with your ability to move easily, or affects daily life in other ways.

Having chronic back pain does not mean someone must have back surgery. However, if ongoing back pain involves neurologic problems (for example, numbness or weakness in the arms or legs), or serious limits to what you can do physically, even after non-surgical treatment, then surgery is recommended.

If you have ongoing back pain that limits how you work or live despite getting non-surgical treatment, you may have wondered if spinal surgery is a potential solution.

We asked Dr. Aaron Yang of Vanderbilt’s Spine Center to explain what to consider about treatment for back pain, including possible surgery.

Talk to your doctor.

Don’t be afraid to discuss the option of back surgery with your physician, Yang said. Yang is a non-surgical specialist, but he works closely with surgeons at Vanderbilt. Talking is the first step in determining whether someone should even consider surgery.

“That doesn’t mean a surgeon is going to operate on you right away,” Yang said.

The first conversation should be about finding out whether surgery is a way to treat your back pain.

“Sometimes patients don’t have something that a surgeon can actually target,” Yang said. Plus, even if back surgery is an option, a surgeon must factor in someone’s other health conditions and the results the patient expects after a potential procedure, he added.

Assess your expectations of surgery.

It’s important to have realistic expectations if your condition can be treated by surgery and whether you want it. Yang recommends thinking about your functional goals—what you can and can’t do—rather than focusing only on relieving pain.

Maybe you’ve had difficulty doing certain activities you were able to do in the recent past, like gardening or completing work tasks. Consider your current ability, or inability, to do daily tasks. Then figure out realistic goals for improving that ability. Reduction in back pain is important, Yang added, but a patient’s goal with surgery shouldn’t be to become pain-free or to partake in extreme physical activity.

Avoid comparisons.

Keep in mind that each surgery and outcome will vary. “As with any medical treatment, people are going to ask other people about what their experiences are,” Yang said. “I tell every patient that every person is different — especially for treatments involving the back.”

Take your time with a decision.

Yang says there’s not necessarily a rush to have surgery, even if it’s an option. “I try to encourage patients to think of it in the greater context,” Yang said. “Can they live with this, or are they at a point where they feel like they just have to have surgery because it’s impacting them that much?”

Yang explains that it is often OK to take conservative approaches (steps that do not involve surgery) to treat back pain, and meet goals for functioning before considering surgery. Many people fear that if they don’t have surgery, their condition won’t improve or it will get worse. Numbness or weakness may also prompt patients to seek surgery sooner. But if a person can tolerate their pain and they do not have neurological symptoms, they can—and should—take their time to explore the options.

There are different options to consider before having a back operation, Yang said. It’s best to explore or consider non-surgical treatments first.

Adult rising from bed and stretching to prevent back pain

Personalized Spine Care

The Vanderbilt Spine Center treats patients from across the Southeast for back pain, sciatica, whiplash and other conditions of the spine, offering a full range of treatments including non-surgical options. If surgery is necessary, the Vanderbilt Spine Center team provides an extraordinary level of experience and expertise for each patient’s needs. For more information, click here or call 615-875-5100.

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