Spine surgery can be complex, yet necessary in some cases. But it’s also normal to be intimidated by the idea of undergoing spine surgery. We know what a broken back or neck can mean. Anytime a doctor suggests that surgery may be necessary to help reduce pain or fix your back, it’s normal to feel scared. It’s also a good idea to get a second opinion, and that’s the right time to ask the right questions. You don’t have to be a spine specialist to understand the risks behind back surgery or understand what it might mean.
First things first, know that like any surgery, spine surgery has its fair share of risks. But it is not inherently more risky than other similar procedures. While you might have heard of scary terms like ‘failed back surgery syndrome’, all invasive procedures have the potential to fail or reverse or come with unintended side effects. You can mitigate the risks by choosing the right specialist or sidestep it with less invasive options and non-invasive treatment, should that still be an option.
But there are cases where surgery is genuinely the best, or even only effective course left. It’s still up to you to decide whether a spine surgery is something you consent to. There will be plenty of time to ask all the questions in the world and think about it. If you’re considering spine surgery as an option for your condition, being confident in your own surgeon’s abilities is a must. Here are eight things you should ask your surgeon to address to help you gain peace of mind.
Is Spine Surgery the Right Answer?
The best-case scenario when considering surgery can sometimes be a completely pain-free aftermath. It’s also important to consider the potential risk, and weigh it against other, less invasive, less risky options. For example – many patients who seek help from spine specialists expecting surgery can find themselves recovering after a less-invasive option. Plenty of non-surgical interventions can be very promising for certain cases of pain.
But there are many people for whom these interventions are no longer an option, such as when your spine begins to develop bone spurs, or your discs have become so swollen than they are severely impeding your mobility due to radiculopathy.
It’s important to discuss with your surgeon where you lie on the spectrum, and what your options truly are. Remember to get a second opinion if your doctor tells you that you need surgery and understand why.
MRI and X-ray imaging are two common ways in which spine specialists identify anomalies and potential causes for pain. However,they are not always perfectly accurate. Disc containment (whether or not disc material has leaked) in particular is a concern, as a study showed that up a third of recorded cases had doctors inaccurately asses disc containment status based on MRI imaging alone.
Is This the Right Procedure?
Your spine specialist should be confident in the type of procedure they’re going to perform. It helps, though, to know that it isn’t always as simple as it might look at first glance. Diagnosing back pain can be quite complex.
Speak to your doctor about what medical data exists to prove the effectiveness of a given procedure for your diagnosis. The more your given specialist has performed that procedure, the better. One of the more common causes of back pain is a herniated disc. If it’s proven that this is what you’re struggling with and surgery seems to be the only way to control the pain and reduce the swelling, then a very simple, small procedure called a microdiscectomy is often enough to make a considerable difference.
But other conditions can call for other procedures. Even among common diagnoses like disc herniation, there are several effective options to consider. Factors like: age, spinal stability, and severity.
How Often Is the Procedure Performed?
Knowing the experience of a specialist can give you peace of mind. If possible, ask your specialist to let you speak with other patients who have had the same procedure. Try to get a feel for what the recovery might be like, and the effects of the procedure.
Risk and Reward
Another thing you should ask about is the potential risk/reward ratio. What could go wrong? Do you know exactly what you gain when it goes right? What could happen at every stage of the procedure and subsequent recovery? It’s not your doctor’s job to scare you. However, you need to know what you can stand to gain or lose.
Do You Know What Comes Next?
Making a plan for after surgery can help ease your mind and take pressure off. It helps to know the set protocols for follow-up, physical rehab, or good results. No surgeon will guarantee you a better back, but they can give you clues at what to expect after surgery.
Are You Mentally Ready for Surgery?
Not everyone can take back surgery – not just physically, but mentally. Surgery is important, and psychiatric help can prepare someone for their procedure. A patient’s mental state coincides with how well they recover, so staying strong mentally very important.
Right Side; Right Level
It might seem like a very elementary mistake to make, but lack of documentation throughout the diagnostic process and lack of clarity on diagnostic imaging tools as well as plain human error sometimes lead to wrong-level and wrong-side errors in a microdiscectomy. Operating at the wrong level or on the wrong side can have some serious long-term side effects, like, continued pain.
While there may not be a way to 100% eliminate the potential for error, there are ways to mitigate risk. It could help to make your spinal specialist aware of these methods, such as the IRACE.
The Bottom Line
As with any invasive procedure, a spine surgery will always be a little scary. But there are plenty of ways to mitigate risk and help ensure a better outcome. Having better information can help you ease some of your anxiety on having spine surgery.
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