Spine Health

When Is Surgery the Right Choice for Back Pain?

Originally published February 7, 2020

Last updated April 30, 2024

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Back surgery is anything but simple. Consider these 4 points before you decide.

Since surgery for back pain involves the spine, decisions involving it merit ample consideration. Jeffrey C. Wang, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and co-director of the USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine of USC, shares what to consider before making this big decision.

1. Know all of your treatment options

Back surgery should fit with your overall care plan and only be considered when it’s the best possible option.

“This means you’ve tried all the reasonable nonsurgical options and conservative treatments, and you know the remaining options,” Wang says. “Then you can make a decision on whether to consider the surgery or try another treatment.”

2. Understand the pros and cons of surgery

To make the right decision about surgery, it’s important to understand what you’re agreeing to.

“You should have a basic grasp of your spinal condition and whether the surgery you’re considering is likely to alleviate your symptoms,” Wang says.

Nothing in surgery is guaranteed, so you should be aware of both the potential benefits as well as the risks and complications that can arise. Wang adds that your doctor should be able to give you an idea of what they hope to accomplish with the surgery and how they would handle any unexpected complication that might arise.

3. Make sure you’re physically ready

Though this is usually the case, your doctor should have a thorough understanding of your current health and medical history to best guide you through the process. Wang suggests that patients undergo a complete medical evaluation and optimize their health before surgery, so they’re in the best physical shape possible. “This evaluation often includes medical clearance, stopping all medications that could delay your recovery and making sure any pain medications you’re on are optimized prior to surgery.”

4. Do your homework

Knowledge is power, particularly when making such an important decision. Therefore, talk to your surgeon openly and make sure they answer all your reasonable questions.

“I always want my patients to feel mentally comfortable with the surgery,” Wang says. “Your hospital may offer preoperative classes, either in person or on the internet, that can provide you with extra information. There are many unanticipated questions that can come up during the preoperative period, and we want to try to anticipate them by offering plenty of information.”

Even so, he says, being nervous is normal. If this is an elective surgery, you’ll probably feel relatively comfortable. A red flag, on the other hand, is having a lot of doubts and being on the fence about the procedure. In that case, a face-to-face, preoperative meeting with your doctor can be helpful to make sure you understand everything.

Going through these steps can help you decide whether back surgery is indeed the best option for you — and ensures that you’ll be prepared.


Deanna Pai
Deanna Pai is a freelance writer and editor.