Back surgery is among the most common unnecessary procedures. So if your doctor suggests it, should you go for it? While there’s no guarantee you’ll come through pain-free, these clues will help you make a smarter decision.
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- Check your diagnosis. There’s clear evidence surgery can help these common problems: spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal cord); degenerative spondylolisthesis, when one vertebra slips forward; and a herniated disc with leg pain.
- Exhaust other options. Start with less-invasive measures like over-the-counter meds, steroid injections, muscle relaxants, physical therapy and/or chiropractor care. Massage or acupuncture may be worth a try. “You only want to operate on people who are not getting better,” says Dr. William A. Abdu, of The Spine Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.
- Assess your pain level. Some people can cope while they explore non-surgical options or let nature take its course (most back pain resolves within a year). For others, the pain may be unbearable.
- Get a second opinion. Consult an orthopedic surgeon or neurosurgeon who specializes in the spine and is affiliated with a back pain center. Don’t share your previous diagnosis; let the new doc take a fresh look at you.
- Compare pros and cons. Weigh the risks and benefits of surgery against those of going without—the drowsiness caused by prescription painkillers, for instance, the inconvenience of going to therapy sessions, and the continuing effect of pain on your ability work and play. And keep in mind: Whether you have surgery or not, says Abdu, “sometimes you just can’t make the pain go away.”