Thinking About Back Pain Surgery? Ask These Questions

Thinking about back surgery

Back pain surgeries are increasing each year.

  • 170.9% increase of primary lumbar fusions from 77,682 to 210,407 between 1998 and 2008.
  • 11.3% increase in laminectomies from 92,390 to 107,790 between 1998 and 2008.

All surgery comes with risks, so it’s important to get all the information you can. It’s a good idea to have all of your questions prepared ahead of time. 

Questions To Ask About Your Surgery

How is the surgery done? How long will it take?

Thanks to advancing technology, most can be done endoscopically. That is, a surgeon can guide tools with the aid of a tiny camera through a small incision. It makes surgery less invasive.

Most of the time, spine surgery takes 2 1/2 hours or less. But it could be longer if more than 3 vertebrae are involved.

Will I need any tests or evaluations before the surgery?

The surgeon may need tests to ensure success.

  • Psychological evaluation. Recovery from surgery can be stressful. The doctor may want to gauge your risk of depression or anxiety during recovery.
  • Test for allergies to anesthetics.
  • Assessment of overall health.

Will there be any implants or hardware? How long do they last?

Many orthopedic spine surgeries involve hardware or implants. For example,  if you’re having a spinal fusion, the surgeon will attach hardware to the vertebrae. This prevents movement of the spinal joint until the bone graft takes. You will want to know the life of the implant and what it is made out of. The last thing you want is to set off the metal detector in the security line at the airport and not know why.

What anesthetic will I receive? Does it have after-effects or risks?

Since most spine surgery is minimally invasive nowadays, you will most likely receive a local anesthetic. In other words, you’ll get an injection to numb the area and you’ll be awake during the operation.

A general anesthetic prevents pain and causes you to sleep during the surgery. You may find it useful to know whether or not you’ll be going under.

Questions For the Spine Surgeon and Assistants

Will you be working with other surgeons, physician assistants, or students? Will you be present until the surgery is over?

Surgeons often work with assistants. Some doctors will begin a procedure but at a certain point pass to his or her colleagues to complete it. You’ll want to know who will be operating and what their tasks are.

How many times have you done this type of operation?

You’ll feel better knowing that the doctor has done a lot of operations like yours. It gives you the reassurance that they know exactly what to do each step of the way. 

How many surgeries of this type are done at this hospital each year?

If a hospital has a lot of surgeries like yours, you can have more confidence in the staff’s ability to take care of you during your hospital stay.

Are you board-certified?

Board certification is a rigorous process to confirm a physician’s competence in his or her specialty. Doctors can practice without board certification.

But you can have more confidence in a board-certified spine surgeon.

It ensures the doctor:

  • Is in conformity with the Board Code of Ethics.
  • Has completed an approved Surgery Residency.
  • Is keeping up to date on surgery developments.

The American Board of Spine Surgery certification is especially rigorous. It requires that a surgeon first complete certification from the American Board of Neurological Surgery and the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery.

Questions About Recovery

How long will I be in the hospital?

Some surgeries are outpatient, meaning they do not require an overnight stay. Other surgeries only need 2 or 3 days stay in a hospital. Some need longer. It is important to know what to expect after the procedure is completed so you can arrange your life outside of the surgery. This could mean babysitters for your kids, boarding for your dog, or just a ride home.

Will I have pain afterward? Will I take pain meds that have possible side effects?

Some surgeries won’t relieve pain right away. In fact, sometimes the pain’s worse at first. You’ll want to know the pain-management plan while you’re in recovery.

Will I need assistance at home?

Depending on the surgery and severity of the situation, you may need visits from a physical therapist, nurse or home health aide to assist with recovery. 

And you’ll want to know if you can be at home alone, or if you’ll need somebody to stay with you.

Will I need a back brace, walker, or other medical equipment?

Your mobility is limited during recovery, so you may need the help of medical devices. Some of these items may be provided for you while others may need to be taken care of yourself.

  • Cane or walker.
  • Toilet riser.
  • Shower seat.
  • Back brace.

Will I need physical therapy?

Movement of the body can help speed up recovery. The doctor will likely have you start out with light stretches and short walks. After you’ve had time to heal, the surgeon may recommend some low-impact exercises.

Questions About the Outcome

Will this eliminate the pain or only decrease it? Can I expect permanent relief?

It’s important that you understand the goal of the surgery. For example, is it to reduce or eliminate pain, or stop additional damage to the spine? Setting expectations can get ahead of disappointment or misunderstandings.

When can I return to work? Drive my car? Resume physical activity?

You’ll be anxious to get back to your normal life. Many people return to usual activities in about 3 weeks. Some surgeries, such as lumbar fusion, need 2-3 months of recovery. Your spine specialist will know your recovery timeline based on your specific situation.

The professionals at Oasis can help determine if surgery is the answer to your back pain. Begin with our free online Pain Assessment Tool below.