Spinal surgery is an extensive procedure, no matter how minimally invasive the approach is. That's why choosing to undergo spine surgery is a huge decision a patient should make with the input of family, their spine surgeon, and all the educational resources they have available to them.
But for many patients who are deciding whether or not to undergo their proposed procedure, determining the appropriate questions to ask before back surgery is daunting. You may know the importance of setting realistic expectations, but it's hard to know exactly which topics will be most helpful to you in making your decision.
At Greater Pittsburgh Orthopaedic Associates, we've helped countless patients through this decision-making process, and it's important to us that the decision to undergo back surgery is one that every patient is completely comfortable with and confident in. With our passion for both minimally-invasive techniques and patient education, we're here to ensure that your treatment plan is truly the right one for you.
Here's some important information every patient should know about spinal surgery, as well as 10 questions to ask your spine surgeon when considering a procedure:
Why You Might Need Spinal Surgery
The spine is composed of bones (vertebrae), disks, and other tissues that work together to protect your spinal cord and allow you to move freely. When any of these structures become damaged or diseased, it can lead to chronic pain, weakness, numbness, and/or paralysis.
In some cases, nonsurgical treatments like medication, physical therapy, and injections can provide relief. But when these conservative methods fail to provide adequate pain relief or improve function, spinal surgery may be recommended.
Spinal Conditions Surgery Can Treat
There are a number of conditions that may be treated with spine surgery, including:
- Degenerative disk disease: Also known as 'wear and tear' on the disks, this occurs when the disks between the vertebrae begin to break down.
- Herniated disk: This spinal condition occurs when the gel-like center of a disk ruptures and pushes through the outer ring of the disk.
- Spinal stenosis: This is a narrowing of the spinal canal, which can compress the nerves and cause pain.
- Spondylolisthesis: This is when one vertebra slips forward over another vertebra, causing pain and/or nerve compression.
- Tumors: Tumors that develop in or around the spine can compress the nerves and cause pain.
- Injuries: Severe spinal injuries can damage the vertebrae, disks, ligaments, or nerves and lead to chronic pain.
These are just some of the conditions that may be treated with spine surgery. Your spine surgeon will be able to determine whether or not surgery is the best course of treatment for your particular condition.
Types of Spinal Surgery
There are many different types of spinal surgery procedures, each designed to address a specific condition. The type of procedure you undergo will depend on the cause and location of your pain, as well as the severity of your symptoms.
Some common types of spine surgery procedures include:
- Anterior cervical diskectomy and fusion (ACDF): This procedure is performed to remove a herniated disk in the neck region and fuse the vertebrae together to stabilize the spine.
- Lumbar microdiskectomy: This minimally-invasive procedure is performed to remove a herniated disk in the lower back region.
- Laminectomy: Also called decompressive laminectomy, this procedure is performed to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves by removing a portion of the vertebral lamina (roof).
- Spinal fusion surgery: Spinal fusion is performed to permanently join two or more vertebrae together, often using metal rods and screws, to stabilize the spine.
10 Questions to Ask Your Spine Surgeon
1. What Should I Expect From My Spinal Surgery?
Before you undergo any type of surgical procedure, it's important that you understand what to expect from the surgery itself as well as the recovery process. Your spine surgeon should be able to provide you with detailed information about the specific procedure you're having, what you can expect during and after the surgery recommended by them, and what kind of results you can realistically expect.
2. Are There Other Options We Haven't Tried?
You and your doctor should be able to weigh the potential risks and potential benefits of surgery against other treatment options that may be available to you. In some cases, nonsurgical treatments like physical therapy, pain medication, or epidural injections can provide relief.
If your surgeon sees signs you need back surgery and is recommending the procedure, be sure to ask if there are other options worth exploring first. A similar procedure may provide similar results to some other more extensive procedure.
3. How Much Does Spine Surgery Cost?
The cost of spine surgery can vary depending on a number of factors, including your insurance coverage, the type of procedure being performed, and the hospital or surgical center where the procedure is being performed. Be sure to ask your surgeon or their medical office staff about the estimated cost of your particular procedure so you can plan accordingly.
Most providers of insurance cover at least a portion of the cost of spine surgery, but it's important to understand your policy and what specific coverage you have before undergoing any type of procedure.
4. Will I Need Pain Medications?
In most cases, patients who undergo spine surgery will need to take some form of pain medication during the recovery process. The type and amount of pain medication you'll need will vary depending on the type of procedure you had and your individual pain tolerance, but most patients receive anti-inflammatory medications to manage any swelling.
Your surgeon should be able to provide you with information about what to expect in terms of pain management and what types of medications will be used. If you're in too much pain or not enough pain for your dose, you should be able to let your surgeon know.
5. What Are My Restrictions Post-Surgery?
After your spine surgery, you'll likely have some restrictions on your activity level and daily activities. These restrictions are typically in place to allow your body time to heal properly after the surgery. Your surgeon should go over all of the restrictions with you before you leave the hospital so that you know what to expect when you get home. Some of the most common restrictions include no lifting of anything heavier than 10 pounds, no bending or twisting at the waist, and no driving for a certain period of time. It's also recommended to suspend drinking alcohol and using tobacco products while you're healing. This is also a good opportunity to talk about any long-term consequences of the surgery, such as loss of feeling or mobility in certain areas. Your surgeon should be able to answer any questions you have about potential side effects or long-term risks, and it's better to discuss them before committing to the procedure.
6. How Long Will My Hospital Stay Be After Spine Surgery?
The length of your hospital stay after spine surgery will depend on the type of procedure you had as well as your individual healing process. In most cases, patients who have undergone minimally invasive spine surgery are able to go home the same day or the day after surgery.
Patients who have had more extensive (inpatient) procedures may need to stay in the hospital for a few days to make sure they're recovering properly before being discharged. Your surgeon should be able to give you an estimate of how long they expect your hospital stay to be so that you can make arrangements accordingly.
If you're considering an inpatient procedure, ask what your facility's policy is on having a family member or friend stay with you during your hospital stay. Some hospitals let a family member spend the night, while some do not.
7. When Can I Resume Normal Activities?
The timeline for resuming normal activities after spine surgery will vary depending on the type of procedure you had, your individual healing process, and the restrictions put in place by your surgeon. Many factors of spine surgery affect the time it takes to recover, so it's important to discuss your expectations with your surgeon before the procedure.
In general, patients who have undergone minimally invasive spine surgery have a shorter recovery time than those who have had inpatient procedures. You should be able to return to most of your normal activities within a few weeks, but it's important not to push yourself too hard too soon. Remember to take it easy and listen to your body as you recover.
8. Do You Have the Appropriate Qualifications?
Many patients find it daunting to 'question' their doctor, but it's your right as a patient to do so. A trustworthy spinal surgeon will have no qualms about sharing their qualifications with you. You can also check their credentials on the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery website.
Orthopedic surgeons who perform spine surgery should have completed an accredited residency program and passed a rigorous board certification process. You should also make sure that your surgeon is up-to-date on the latest advancements in spine surgery by inquiring about their continued education.
At GPOA, our spine surgeons are fellowship-trained and board-certified, meaning they have the skills and experience needed to provide you with the best possible care.
9. What Is Your Personal Success Rate?
A good surgeon will be able to share their personal success rates with you without hesitation. You can also ask your surgeon for data on the facility's overall success rates for the specific procedure you're considering. This information can help put your mind at ease and give you a better idea of what to expect from the surgery.
10. What Will My Recovery Be Like?
Recovery from spine surgery is different for everyone, and there are a variety of factors that can affect the length and severity of your recovery period. Your surgeon should be able to give you a general idea of what to expect from your surgical outcomes as you recover, but it's important to keep in mind that every patient heals differently.
Some patients experience significant pain and discomfort during their recovery, while others have a relatively easy time. You may lose weight due to decreased appetite or difficulty eating, and you may need help with activities of daily living as you recover.
Physical therapy is a vital part of treatment that helps patients regain their strength and mobility. You'll need to start physical therapy at a rehabilitation facility Your surgeon will work with you to create a customized rehabilitation program that meets your needs and helps you recover as quickly and safely as possible.
Visit the Top Spine Surgeons Near You
Spine surgery is a major decision, and it's important to make sure you're as prepared as possible before moving forward with the procedure. Asking your surgeon these 10 questions will help you better understand the risks and benefits of surgery and make an informed decision about whether or not it's right for you.
Greater Pittsburgh Orthopaedic Associates (GPOA) is a leading provider of orthopedic care in the Pittsburgh area. Our team of experienced orthopaedic surgeons can evaluate your spine and determine if back surgery is right for you.
If you're ready to learn more about our spinal surgery services, or to get started on your road to recovery with the best spine specialist in Pittsburgh, PA, don't wait. Schedule your first appointment at GPOA today.