Back in the 1950s, spine surgery was in its infancy, and doctors weren’t always sure what caused back pain. Today, spine surgery has advanced to the point where many common decompression and stabilization procedures can be performed with minimally invasive techniques. Success rates are also much higher with most types of back-related surgery today. Still, there are some sources of back pain not treatable with surgery. Here’s a closer look at a few things spine surgery can and cannot fix.
Structural Issues with the Spine: Surgery Can Fix
Generally, spine surgery can treat mechanical sources of back pain, meaning there is something wrong structurally with the bones or joints of the backbone. For instance, a spinal fracture that’s not healing on its own can be treated with procedures involving special cement and a surgical balloon (vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty).
Non-Specific Lower Back Pain: Surgery Cannot Fix
Spine surgery is only performed if there is a clearly identifiable source of pain. If you’ve been diagnosed with non-specific lower back pain, you may benefit from visiting a Los Angeles spine surgeon to see if a more specific pain source can be pinpointed.
Nerve Compression: Surgery Can Fix
When something is compressing a nerve root near the spine, surgery can fix the issue when non-surgical treatment options fail to provide relief. A common example is a herniated disc where inner disc material pushes outward and irritates a nearby nerve. Similar sources of nerve compression that can be corrected surgically include:
- Bone spurs causing nerve impingement
- “Slipped discs” (spondylolisthesis)
- Nerve compression in narrow parts of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis)
Degenerative Disc Disease: Surgery Cannot Fix
Lumbar fusion surgery can fix disc damage resulting from degenerative disc disease. Even so, there is nothing that can be done to stop the general age-related wear of spinal discs. The good news is that most people reach a point where the discomfort experienced decreases over time.
Spinal Cysts and Tumors: Surgery Can Fix
Many spinal growths in the form of cysts or tumors can be removed surgically. If removal results in instability, fusion surgery may be performed to restore the stability of the spine.
Spinal Cord Injuries: Surgery Cannot Fix
Damage to the spine can sometimes be limited with surgery following a spinal cord injury. However, surgery cannot reverse damage already done to the spinal cord itself.
Scoliosis: Surgery Can Fix (to Some Extent)
A sideways curvature of the spine only requires surgical attention if the degree of misalignment is severe. Surgery can keep the condition from getting worse, although the spine’s natural shape cannot always be restored.
Smoking-Related Damage: Surgery Cannot Fix
Over time, the chemicals in cigarette smoke can damage tissues around the spine, resulting in reduced blood flow that sometimes contributes to back pain. Surgery cannot fix this type of damage, although you may benefit from making changes to your diet and getting more exercise after you quit smoking.
Failed Back Surgery: Surgery Can (Sometimes) Fix
A second surgery may be more successful than what was first attempted. However, this is only the case if an accurate diagnosis of the source of your pain is made following your initial surgery.
Surgery is rarely the first attempt at treatment unless there is some type of medical urgency. Normally, patients are encouraged to try various forms of physical therapy, including heat and ice applications and customized exercise routines, along with the modification of activities. Alternative treatments like electrotherapy and acupuncture may also be worth considering, especially if the source of your pain cannot be treated with minimally invasive spinal surgery. Los Angeles residents should get in touch with the expert surgeons at The Spine Institute to discuss their options for fusion and non-fusion procedures. Call 310-828-7757 to schedule an in-person evaluation.