Back pain is a common complaint that usually responds well to non-surgical treatments like physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medication. It’s often caused by pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots due to injuries or wear and tear. The pain can affect every part of your life. Other symptoms can include:
- Bowel or bladder problems
- Difficulty walking
- Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
Back surgery is often the last resort when more conservative treatments don’t relieve the symptoms. Back surgery can:
- Decrease dependence on pain medication
- Improve mobility
- Improve the quality of life
- Reduce or relieve pain
What Does Back Surgery Treat?
Back surgery is often performed to relieve the pain and other symptoms of common conditions, including:
Ruptured disc (herniated disc) – Discs between the vertebrae act as shock absorbers, cushioning the bones in the spine. As we age, discs can begin to break down. They can bulge or rupture, irritating or compressing the spinal cord or nerves.
Spinal stenosis – Narrowing of the spinal column means less space for the spinal cord. This can put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves. Spinal stenosis is most often caused by osteoarthritis – essentially wear and tear on the joints.
Spondylolisthesis – Strain and stress in the lower back can cause a vertebra to slip forward onto the vertebra below, causing lower back pain and stiffness in the back, legs, hamstrings, and muscles of the buttocks.
Vertebral fractures – Fractures caused by injury or osteoporosis can be painful and may cause spinal instability.
Degenerative disk disease – Wear and tear of spinal discs can cause vertebrae to rub together, causing pain and other conditions like spinal stenosis or herniated discs.
Types of Back Surgery
The best type of surgery for you depends on your specific injury and symptoms. Sometimes more than one technique is needed to treat the source of pain adequately. A discectomy and spinal fusion are often done simultaneously, for example, to remove a damaged disc and stabilize the vertebrae above and below it.
Vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty
These procedures repair and strengthen compression fractures that are a result of osteoporosis. Fractures are strengthened by injecting a special cement that hardens the bone.
Spinal laminectomy (decompression)
Decompression surgery treats spinal stenosis by removing bone and bone spurs from the vertebrae that are compressing the spinal cord or nerves. It relieves the pain of compression by widening the spinal canal.
A discectomy removes a damaged disc that is compressing the spinal cord or a nerve root. It is often done with spinal fusion to stabilize the spine.
A foraminotomy enlarges the opening where a nerve root branches out from the spinal canal.
Spinal fusion surgery uses bone grafts or metal plates to fuse two or more vertebrae to stabilize the spine or eliminate motion. It is often done after a discectomy removes a damaged disc.
Artificial disk replacement
Removes damaged discs and replaces them with artificial discs.
For standard (open) surgery, you may need to recover in the hospital for several days. Minimally invasive surgery has a shorter recovery time, and you may go home the same day.
Standard and minimally invasive surgeries are both done under general anesthesia.
Depending on your procedure, your surgeon may need to access your spine from the front (anterior), back (posterior), or side (lateral).
Recovery may take a few weeks to several months, depending on your specific needs. Before you go home, you will learn how to care for yourself and your incisions after surgery, any special restrictions or precautions, possible complications, and follow-up appointments.
You may need physical therapy to strengthen your back. For the very best results, it’s essential to follow your post-operative instructions carefully and go to all appointments.
You can help your recovery by eating a healthy diet and not smoking.
Risks of Back Surgery
Complications of back surgery are rare but could include:
- Blood clots
- Herniated disc
- Loss of flexibility
- Nerve damage
- Reaction to anesthesia
- Recurrence of symptoms
- Risks associated with lying face down for surgery, which limits access to airways and affects blood flow
Is Back Surgery Right for Me?
Back surgery isn’t suitable for everyone, but it may be right for you depending on your condition, symptoms, and medical history. You and your surgeon will discuss your treatment options at your consultation. After your physical exam, your surgeon may recommend diagnostic imaging tests, like an X-ray or MRI, to learn more about the cause of your symptoms.
If you think back surgery may be right for you, schedule a consultation appointment today.