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Back pain is becoming an increasingly common health problem these days. There are many remedies available for different kinds of back pain, ranging from home remedies, to massage and physical therapy, to anti-inflammatory medications. Sometimes, back pain resolves on its own within a couple of months.

In some cases, though, back pain is resolved through back surgery.

When back surgery is needed

Back surgery is not usually recommended by doctors because non-surgical treatments are usually effective. In the following cases, though, back surgery may be needed.

  • Persistent, severe back pain. Back pain sometimes doesn’t respond to conservative treatments. If the pain is persistent or severe enough to disable the patient, surgery is often required.
  • Pain and numbness has spread from the back down to one or both arms or legs. Numbness or pain in one or both arms or legs can be caused by the compression of nerves in your spine.

Nerve compression may be the result of many conditions, the most common of which are disk problems and bone overgrowth. With disk problems, bulging or herniated (ruptured) disks, which are the cushions between the bones of your spine, press to close against a spinal nerve. As a result, the spinal nerve’s function is affected. With bone overgrowth, on the other hand, bone spurs may develop on your spine as a result of osteoarthritis.

  • Loss of control over bowels and bladder. In some cases, like in the development of cauda equina syndrome, back problems result in the loss of control over the bowels and the bladder. This occurs when the nerves for the control of the bowels and bladder are damaged, mostly due to excess pressure from leaking material from herniated discs. This requires immediate attention through surgery, as it can become a permanent condition.

Even with advancements in medical knowledge and technology, pinpointing the exact cause of back pain remains difficult. Even if X-ray tests show that you have disk problems or bone spurs on your spine, these problems may not cause symptoms at all and therefore won’t require treatment. You may have to consult the opinion of two or more specialists before you can make a properly informed choice on back surgery.

Types of back surgery

There are many types of back surgery you can get, the most common of which are:

  • Laminectomy. This involves the removal of bones covering the spinal canal. The spinal canal is enlarged, to relieve the nerve pressure caused by spinal stenosis (the narrowing of spaces in the spine).
  • Diskectomy. This procedure aims to relieve the irritation and inflammation of nerves through the removal of the herniated portion of a disk. This usually involves the full or partial removal of the lamina (the back portion of a vertebra) to gain access to the ruptured disk.
  • Fusion. Spinal fusion is performed to permanently join two or more bones in the spine. This relieves pain and adds stability to a spinal fracture. In some cases, spinal fusion can relieve the painful movement between vertebrae, which can be caused by injured or degenerated disks.
  • Artificial disk implantation. The implantation of artificial disks is an alternative treatment for spinal fusion, as it also addresses the painful movement between vertebrae due to injured or degenerated disks. Unfortunately, this procedure involves generally new technology that aren’t available to many people.

Surgical procedures for treating back pain are largely elective, so you’ll have to consider whether you need back surgery at all. The truth is that only 5% of the 56 million Americans who suffer from lower back pain truly need surgery, according to studies by the Mayo Clinic.

Back surgery can cause a wide variety of complications, too, from surgical nerve damage, to dural tears and increased risk of spinal meningitis, to degenerative disc disease. In many cases, the surgical procedures aren’t even effective at easing lower back pain.

“An enormous number of back surgeries don’t give patients long-term relief,” says Charles Rosen, M.D., clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine.

Before you consider opting for back surgery, it’s always best to get a second or even third opinion from qualified spine specialists. A spine surgeon will also help you determine whether you need back surgery at all. These specialists may have differing points of view when it comes to the timing the operation and the specific surgical procedure needed, among other factors. You may also need to consult other health professionals for the diagnosis and treatment of pain in your arms or legs.