Failed Back Surgery Syndrome: Vital Facts

What Is Failed Back Surgery Syndrome?

To put it simply, Failed Back Surgery Syndrome, or FBSS, is when pain continues after back surgery. 

It’s kind of a misnomer. It may have failed back surgery in the name, but a lot of times, the surgeon restored stability in the spine.

But the pain is still there. 

When you’re in pain, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, right?

It’s normal to have pain immediately after. Tissue swells up and presses against nerves. The pain could be worse than before. You should feel better over the next 3-6 months.

If your pain level drops during the first 3 months, you can expect a full recovery. But if it doesn’t get better or it gets worse, there’s a problem. You’ll need to make sure you don’t have complications from the surgery:

  • Infection
  • Reherniation of disks
  • Mass of clotting blood

Causes of Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

The rate of FBSS is 10% to 40% according to some studies.

  • The surgery didn’t deal with the cause of pain.
  • When the tissue grows back together, scar tissue might wrap around the spinal nerves. The pain comes from the scars squeezing the nerves. This is known as fibrosis.
  • The nerve didn’t fully decompress.
  • Nerve damage occurred during surgery.

You can have FBSS after any back surgery, but it’s most common with these:

Laminectomy. This is also known as decompression. As you get older, back bones get thicker on the inside. Buildup of tissue in the vertebrae squeezes the spinal cord and puts you in agony. This is called spinal stenosis. The surgeon removes the back part of the vertebral bone, the lamina. This takes pressure off the spinal cord.

You might suffer from failed back surgery syndrome after a laminectomy if:

  • The surgeon missed a fragment that’s still pinching a nerve.
  • Decompression was done at the wrong level of the spine.
  • There’s trauma to the nerve root.

Discectomy. The surgeon removes the herniated part of a disc that’s pressing on spinal nerves.

  • About 15 percent of the time, the disc becomes herniated again after surgery.
  • Scar tissue pressing against the spinal nerves.

Spinal Fusion. This surgery makes two or more vertebrae into a single bone. It’s done when movement causes back pain.

The surgeon inserts screws into the bones to keep them from moving. Without the ability to move, the body’s natural processes cause the bones to weld together. It takes about 3 months most of the time, but it can take up to a year.

There are a couple of causes of FBSS after spinal fusion:

  • Hardware problems – the screws weren’t set properly.
  • The fusion doesn’t take.

What to do about Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

Without Surgery

Exercise and Physical Therapy. 

  • A lot of patients succeed in managing back pain with yoga and pilates.
  • With physical therapy, you work with a trained professional to guide you.
  • Stretches and exercises.
  • Strengthening exercises.
  • Pain relief exercises.
  • Aerobic conditioning.
  • Electric stimulation of spinal nerves.
  • Medication.
  • Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs.
  • Steroids.
  • Opioid painkillers.

Repeat Surgery

To find the cause of pain, you’ll need MRIs and other imaging tests. After that, your doctor may recommend repeat surgery. Unfortunately, the chances of success aren’t better. You have a 30% success rate with the second surgery. A third surgery has a 15% success rate. Fourth – only 5%.

Don’t Ignore Back Pain

If you’re suffering from FBSS, the last thing you want is to do nothing.

  • If spinal nerve compression continues for too long, it could cause further damage.
  • Chronic back pain can affect your mental health.
  • It disturbs your sleep. Getting proper rest is essential for your overall health.


Don’t think suffering from FBSS means you have no choice but to live with it. Remember, it’s called Failed Back Surgery Syndrome, but it doesn’t always mean the surgery failed. You’ll need to find the root cause of your back pain. At Oasis Orthopedic and Spine, we’re here to help.

Start with our free Pain Assessment Tool below.