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Back Surgery: Is It Right for You? Or Can You Avoid It?

Oct. 10, 2019

This is the fourth article in this series of blog posts about common types of surgery. So far, we’ve talked about shoulder, knee and hip surgeries, and I’ve saved my least favorite for last: back surgery.

If you’ve had any of these types of surgeries before, you can probably appreciate the idea that surgery is always the last option. It’s the option you choose when you’ve tried everything else, you’re still in significant pain, and you’re realizing that the pain is causing you to miss out on the things you enjoy in life.

In today’s post (video at the bottom), I’m going to describe the most common types of back surgeries, and I’ll follow it up with some important tips and advice to help you figure out the best course of action.

3 Common Back Surgeries

– Discectomies: if you have a severe disc bulge in your lower back (aka the lumbar spine), and the bulge is putting pressure on one of your nerve roots, you might be a good candidate for this type of surgery. The portion of the disc that is encroaching on the nerve root is removed, which should relieve the associated nerve pain. Often times, this pain is “sciatica”, although you can also have nerve pain shooting down different regions of your leg, depending on which nerve root is being compressed.

– Laminectomies: the “laminae” represent a portion of the bony anatomy of your back bones (your vertebrae). During surgery, the laminae are removed, which frees up space for the spinal cord and the surrounding nerve roots. This surgery can be very helpful for people with severe degenerative changes in their spine, including severe “stenosis” (spinal narrowing).

– Fusions: this surgery is more invasive than the first two, and the outcomes aren’t always as positive. A fusion involves taking 2 vertebrae in your spine (say L4 and L5 or L5 and S1) and fusing them together. The disc is removed and is replaced by a bone mixture that will form one large, solid bone over time. People with this surgery will typically have rods and screws that hold the 2 bones together while they fuse.

Back Surgery Tips & Advice

– Tip #1: Treat Your Back Pain Quickly! People with back pain often ignore it for far too long. While this is completely understandable at times, the unfortunate result is this: minor back issues turn into bigger issues over time, often leading to structural damage. As this occurs, the chances surgery will be required tends to increase. So if you have ongoing back pain, try to figure out the cause and the solution to eliminating it as quickly as possible (to avoid any structural damage).

– Tip #2: Fix Your Sitting Posture. Sitting for prolonged periods is just about the worst thing you can do for your back. Your body wasn’t designed to sit…it was designed to move! Unfortunately, many people sit for 6-10 hours/day between work and home. If this sounds like you, and you have a sore back, figure out ways to break up periods of prolonged sitting and get more movement in your life. Correcting your sitting posture can also take a significant amount of stress off your lower back.

– Tip #3: Don’t Mess with Nerve Pain! I mentioned earlier how surgery is the last option for any type of pain. However, if you have constant nerve pain, without any periods of relief (like when you sit or lie down), you need to act quickly! That’s because constant nerve pain means your nerves are being compressed at some location in your body. And if it turns out that conservative treatment, like physical therapy and chiropractic, can’t take the pressure off the involved nerves, you need to quickly figure out your best options. If you wait too long, you risk permanent nerve damage and pain, which is extremely uncomfortable.

To wrap things up, let me just reiterate a few key points. First, I think most of us can agree that surgery is always the last option. Second, there are a lot of things you can do to ease your back pain, which will allow you to stay active. Physical therapy falls into this category. Third, if you need surgery, try not to wait too long to gather information.

If conservative treatment isn’t working, make sure you ask your doctor and healthcare providers about the next steps, such as imaging and a referral to a surgeon if needed. This doesn’t mean that you have to jump right into surgery, but at least you’ll have all the information you need to make a good decision about your health.

And of course, if you have any specific questions that I can help you with, feel free to send me a quick email at Luke@GordonPhysicalTherapy. I’m always happy to help!

– Luke Gordon

Below is the video version of today’s post, including some extra ideas. Enjoy 🙂

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