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Is back surgery right for you?

reviewed 10/25/2018

Back surgery

Is it right for you?

Back pain is common among American adults, and it can range from inconvenient to unbearable. Most back pain doesn't require surgery and can be treated with medicines or physical therapy. But surgery does help some people. This decision tool will help you figure out if back surgery is a good option for you.

Has your pain lasted more than three months?

If you answered "yes." If your pain has lasted longer than three months, it's considered chronic. Chronic pain is less common than acute pain, which typically lasts less than six weeks.

If you answered "no." Acute pain is the most common type of back pain. It lasts no longer than six weeks. Acute pain comes on suddenly, but it can leave just as quickly. On the other hand, chronic pain lasts longer than three months.

Are you still in pain despite taking medication?

If you answered "yes." Not every medicine works for everyone. A wide range of medications can treat back pain. Some are available over the counter, while others require a prescription. There are two main kinds used to help back pain:

Analgesics: These drugs were designed to relieve pain. They include acetaminophen and aspirin. Narcotics are prescription analgesics.

NSAIDs: That stands for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. They're meant to relieve pain and inflammation.

If you answered "no." Good! Relief from pain can be life-changing. There's a wide range of medications that can treat back pain. If you've found one that works for you, you're ahead of the game.

Have you tried exercise to treat your back pain?

If you answered "yes." It's a good first step. If you're managing chronic pain, getting a move on can benefit mind and body. Exercise can even help prevent chronic pain from returning. Keep these movements in mind:

  • Bending forward.
  • Bending backward.
  • Stretching.

Your doctor can give you some specific exercises to try.

If you answered "no." It's something to consider. Exercise isn't usually a good idea with acute back pain. But it can often ease chronic back pain and even prevent it from returning. These exercises can help:

  • Bending forward.
  • Bending backward.
  • Stretching.

Your doctor can give you some specific exercises to try.

Have you made behavior or lifestyle changes?

If you answered "yes." It's amazing what a few small changes can do. Learning to move your body differently can help alleviate back pain. If you've already modified activities that involve lifting, pushing or pulling, consider other habits too. Exercise, rest and a healthy diet can help your body feel better—and heal better.

If you answered "no." A few small changes can have a big impact. Learning to move your body differently can help alleviate back pain. Consider modifying activities that involve lifting, pushing or pulling. Exercise, rest and a healthy diet can improve pain too.

Have you tried complementary therapies?

If you answered "yes." It's worth a shot, right? In addition to seeing their doctor, many people with chronic pain try complementary and integrative therapies like:

  • Chiropractic care.
  • Yoga.
  • Acupuncture.

These treatments won't cure disease or repair injury. However, they can help relieve back pain.

If you answered "no." When chronic pain isn't relieved by conventional treatment, there are other options. Many people try complementing their medical treatment with therapies like:

  • Chiropractic care.
  • Yoga.
  • Acupuncture.

These treatments won't cure disease or repair injury. However, they can help relieve back pain.

Have you seen a doctor for the pain?

If you answered "yes." Good for you! Seeking help is the next step if back pain persists. Most back pain goes away with or without treatment, but it's a good idea to see a doctor—especially if you have pain after a fall or injury.

If you answered "no." For acute pain, you often don't need to see a doctor. It will usually go away with or without treatment. But if pain has lingered for more than three weeks, you should get it checked out. You should also see your doctor if you have:

  • Pain that runs down the leg below the knee.
  • Numbness in the leg, foot, groin or rectal area.
  • Pain that keeps you from moving around.

Have other treatments failed to address your pain?

If you answered "yes." Back surgery can be a good option when other treatments have come up short. Here are some conditions that may require surgery:

  • Herniated disk.
  • Spinal stenosis.
  • Spondylolisthesis.
  • Vertebral fractures.
  • Degenerative disk disease.

If you answered "no." Even if you're still dealing with back pain, finding some relief is a good start. In general, back surgery is reserved for chronic pain that doesn't respond to other treatment.

Results

Talk with your doctor about your results, and be sure to ask any questions that came up in this assessment. Together, you can decide what the right next step is for you.

Sources: American College of Physicians; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

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