Spine Surgery Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are common causes of back and spine pain?
Wear and tear conditions such as degenerative arthritis and degenerative disc disease are some of the most common causes of back and spine pain. Muscle pulls and tears may also cause low back pain, but usually these symptoms are short-lived. Weak muscles, poor flexibility, and poor posture can aggravate underlying conditions and make your symptoms worse. Less common causes of back pain are infections, cancer, fractures, aneurysms, or internal organ problems.

Is bed rest a good treatment for back and spine pain?
In the past, bed rest was the recommended treatment for back pain. Recent studies have shown that bed rest may actually make your back pain worse. Bed rest, especially over extended periods of time, can cause the back muscles to become weaker, called deconditioning, and can significantly slow the recovery from acute back pain. The best course of action would be to stop doing the particular activities or movements which cause the pain. Avoid bending and lifting, twisting motions, and other movements which trigger the pain. Staying moderately active so long as you are not in pain keeps the muscles from becoming too weak. Bed rest should only be used when you are having severe pain and cannot even tolerate simple activities such as standing, walking, or sitting without suffering pain.

What are common causes of neck pain?
Neck pain can have many causes. Mechanical-type pain is caused by problems in the spinal joints or from the disc. Radicular-type pain is caused from injury or compression of the nerves in the neck. Myelopathic-type pain comes from injury or compression of the spinal cord. Mechanical-type pain is usually called degenerative joint disease or degenerative disc disease and is the most common cause of neck pain. Radicular-type pain is usually sharp, electrical pain that goes down from the neck to the arm. It may also have numbness or weakness associated with it. Certain head and neck movement may aggravate or even alleviate the symptoms. Myelopathic-type pain usually occurs in both arms and can even go down into the legs. It is also associated with numbness and weakness in the limbs. There can be problems with balance, coordination, dexterity, and even lead to problems with the bladder and intestines.

Should I have an MRI for my pain condition?
After a full medical history and examination, your health care provider will decide if an MRI would be helpful in diagnosing your condition. The majority of patients with neck, back, and/or limb pain will improve with time without the need for additional therapy or testing/imaging. Typically, if you are having significant neurological pain, relating to the nerves, brain, or spinal cord, and you are having significant weakness, problems walking, or bladder/intestinal problems then an MRI scan is likely to be recommended.

When do I need spinal surgery to treat my condition?
If the pain is getting worse over time, is severe, and is disabling, surgery may be considered. Symptoms such as numbness, tingling, and weakness are all possible signs of nerve compression and may indicate a need for surgery in order to prevent the nerve damage from becoming permanent. Compression of the spinal cord can be very dangerous if left untreated, so surgery may be required. Spine surgery may also be used in a preventative manner if there is risk of the spinal cord being damaged. Additionally, surgery may be needed if there is significant deformity of the spine itself.

Why are some neck surgeries performed through the front of the neck?
Even though the spine is in the back of the body, it is much less invasive to access these cervical spine structures through the front of the neck. There is much less trauma to the body when accessing the cervical spine through the front of the neck. Also, the spinal cord itself is not in the way when performing certain cervical spine surgeries from the front of the neck. This can make for a safer procedure overall.

What are my risks from surgery?
Risks and complications from surgery include: infection, bleeding, and any risks associated with general anesthesia. Procedures performed through the front of the neck have the risk of potential injury to the local structures, for example, the trachea, esophagus, and carotid arteries and some nerves. In general, spine surgery is performed in close proximity to the spinal cord and nerve roots. These structures could become injured and cause weakness, numbness in the limbs, or problems in the intestines, bladder, or sexual dysfunction. Serious complications from a procedure called a cervical discectomy are extremely low.

What does the surgeon do during spinal surgery?
The two main types of spine surgery are procedures which reduce or remove compression on the nerves, and procedures to stabilize the spine. Portions of the spinal bones (vertebrae) or portions of the disc (intervertebral disc) can be removed to alleviate the compression. For spinal stabilization surgeries; plates, screws, artificial discs, and other medical devices can be implanted into the spine during the procedure. Also, certain types of specialized cement can be injected into the damaged vertebrae to help correct and stabilize them.

How long will the surgery take?
The most commonly performed surgeries typically last from one to three hours. Studies show that when you get your surgical procedure in an Ambulatory Surgery Center (ASC), you will, on average, spend up to one hour less in the operating room versus the same procedure in an in-patient hospital setting. This may reduce the incidence of complications from surgery.

How long does it take to recover from spinal surgery?
Recovery time depends on the type of procedure performed, the general health of the patient, and whether or not there were any complications from the surgery. In general, the recovery time can be from as little as one week for simple procedures to around 3 months for more complex procedures. Your physician will provide you with specific guidelines for your recovery.

Will I have any limitations after spinal surgery?
Right after surgery, you may be asked to refrain from doing any lifting, bending, or twisting motions. For patients who have had spinal stabilization procedures, especially with medical device implantation such as plates and screws, you may be limited in certain movements for several months. As a general rule, getting up and back on your feet doing light movements such as walking, will aid in your recovery time, as this keep the muscles working and helps your circulation. Your surgeon will instruct you on how and when you can return to daily activities.