Back pain, whether you’ve had it for a few days or a few months, can make it difficult or impossible to live your life to the fullest. It can also lead to other symptoms, such as tingling, numbness, and a lack of mobility. These symptoms can affect how well you can perform everyday activities, such as bending and moving around. You may know you need to treat your back pain, but is it time to consider spinal surgery to treat your symptoms?
Many types of back pain, especially lower back pain, can be treated without surgery. For example, a doctor may recommend physical therapy, heat, and over-the-counter pain medications. These methods can usually help people find relief for back pain within a month. However, some spinal conditions can only be treated through surgery.
Read on for six signs that you should talk to your doctor about back surgery.
1. Your back pain lasts for over a month.
In 75 to 90% of people, lower back pain goes away on its own within a month. If your back pain lingers for more than a month or two, it may mean that you need medical treatment beyond what you can do at home.
When you first start experiencing back pain, home remedies such as heat, ice, and over-the-counter pain medications, may help relieve some of your symptoms. If your back doesn’t start to heal on its own, then you may need to consider additional treatments.
2. You’ve already tried non-surgical treatments.
If you’re living with back pain that hasn’t gone away with the home remedies listed above, there are a few other options you can try before you consider spinal surgery. In fact, your doctor probably won’t even want to talk about spinal surgery before trying out at least a few less-invasive treatments.
The specific treatments they recommend will depend on the cause and severity of your condition. Non-surgical treatments for back pain can include:
- Cognitive therapy
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
- Chiropractic care (spinal manipulation and spinal mobilization)
- Spinal injections (steroids and local anesthetics)
- Physical therapy (strengthen core and support lower back)
3. Your pain is affecting your quality of life.
When you can’t find relief from more conservative treatment options — or you can only find temporary relief — back pain can start to negatively impact your quality of life. If your pain is persistent and it keeps you from performing everyday activities, or if your spinal condition is affecting your balance or mobility, it may be a sign that you should consider spinal surgery.
Some conditions, such as spinal stenosis and herniated disks, can compress the nerves in your spine. This can cause tingling, numbness, muscle weakness, and pain that radiates down your arms and legs. Other conditions may make your spine unstable, affecting its ability to support your body as you go about your day. In these cases, spinal surgery may be needed to help you avoid permanent loss of strength or stability in your back.
4. You can pinpoint the cause of your back pain.
It’s not always easy to figure out what’s causing your back pain and related symptoms. Doctors can use x-rays and other imaging technology to look for issues in your spinal column. They may find evidence of bone spurs or herniated disks on your x-rays. However, they can’t always be sure that those factors are responsible for your pain. Sometimes, those conditions won’t cause any symptoms and, therefore, won’t need any treatment.
The more confident your healthcare provider is that they’ve found the source of your back pain, the better chance you’ll have that spinal surgery will actually help with your symptoms. This is where seeking second (or third) opinions and seeing a spinal specialist come in. The more you know about your condition, the better you’ll be able to make decisions about your surgery.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases recommends spinal surgery for patients with:
- Degenerative disc disease caused by aging
- A ruptured or herniated disk and damage to one or more disks
- Spinal fractures caused by osteoporosis
- Spondylolisthesis and one or more bones that have slipped out of place
- Spinal stenosis that narrows the spinal column, putting pressure on the spinal cord and nearby nerves
5. You have pain that radiates down your arms or legs.
Some back conditions, such as herniated disks and bone spurs, can put pressure on the nerves around your spinal column. This nerve pressure can cause pain that radiates down your arms or legs, called radiculopathy. If you’re dealing with this kind of radiating pain, surgery may be an effective way to ease your symptoms.
Surgery can allow a doctor to go in, remove the source of pressure in your spine, and create more space for your spinal canal. (That’s the hollow space in the middle of your vertebrae that houses and protects your spinal cord and connecting nerves). They do this by shaving away the part of bone and spinal tissue that’s pressing on your nerves and causing your symptoms.
6. Your symptoms have suddenly gotten worse.
If you notice your back pain creating more severe symptoms, you should contact a healthcare professional right away. Some signs to look out for include:
- Sudden weakness in your legs: This can be caused by compressed nerves in your spine, but sudden leg weakness may also be a sign of a stroke.
- Incontinence: If you have back pain and you find yourself unable to control your bladder or bowels, it may indicate that the nerve compression has gotten more severe. Incontinence may also be a sign of an infection in your spine.
- Numbness or tingling pain in your glutes or groin: This pins and needles feeling in your midsection may indicate severe nerve compression or other condition in your spine.
When symptoms associated with back pain suddenly become more severe, surgery is often needed to prevent permanent damage or disability.
Questions to ask if you’re considering spinal surgery
If any of the above signs apply to you, it may be time to talk to your healthcare provider about your options for spinal surgery. The more you know about the procedure, the better prepared you’ll be for the surgery and recovery. The following questions can help guide you as you choose your surgery, your healthcare facility, and your surgeon:
- What are the risks of this surgery? How could they affect my life?
- What is the success rate for this surgery?
- What are the chances that this surgery will heal my back pain?
- Is there anything specific I should do to prepare for spinal surgery?
- What will my life look like after this surgery?
- What will my life look like if I don’t have this surgery?
- What can I expect during my recovery from spinal surgery?
- How long will I have to wait before returning to work (or any other physical activities that are important to you)?
- How long has the surgeon been performing this surgery?
- Does the surgeon have any patient reviews?
- Do my doctor and surgeon both recommend this procedure?
If you’re unsure whether back surgery is the right option for you, you can always seek out a second opinion from a qualified spine specialist. When you’re sure that you’re ready to get spinal surgery, your next question will probably be about how much the procedure will cost.
Too often, uninsured and underinsured patients are often forced to decide between living with chronic back pain and paying the high medical costs associated with spine surgery. With New Choice Health’s Spine Surgery Assist program, you can find spinal surgery options with top quality surgeons at fair, affordable prices.