Anger Altering a Surgical Decision

posted in: Recent, Stage 5, Stage 5: Step 5


  • Spine surgery is not an option if there is not a structural problem with matching symptoms.
  • Back pain does not respond to surgery and it is often made much worse in the presence of untreated chronic pain.
  • It is understandable why you might choose it as it seems definitive and you are desperate.
  • Anger shifts your brain activity from the thinking to the survival regions. You cannot think clearly.
  • Back pain is solvable with no risk and minimal resources. Don’t let your life be destroyed by a failed back surgery.


Imagine your life before the pain. Stop and visualize a day or period back then when you were just plain angry. What kind of a day was it? It wasn’t great. Now add the pain back into the picture and what you have – living hell.

One of the byproducts of anger is obsessing over negatives. With chronic pain, it is deadly. As the brain focuses on the pain, your nervous system becomes sensitized and the signal becomes stronger. (1) Then you’ll become even angrier. An endless cycle emerges, and you spiral downward. The other problem with anger is that your brain is producing inflammatory proteins called cytokines. This also creates a shift in the blood flow from the neocortex (thinking centers) to the lower levels of the brain (survival) and you simply cannot think clearly. It is critical to get your brain back “on-line” before making major surgical decisions.

I know you have pain, but what exactly are you looking for? When I ask that question in the clinic, the most common answer I hear is “ I just want to get rid of the pain.” I’m sure you want this too, but even if the pain disappears, will the rest of your life just come together and be great? Being pain free is just one of the things you need to live a stress fee, happy, and healthy life. It turns out that if you work on some of these other things, like learning to deal with stress, the intensity of your pain becomes reduced. (2)




Around 1990, I had a patient in her mid-thirties who had suffered a lifting injury at work. She was seeking another surgical opinion. She had a moderate curvature of her lower back that she had been born with. The term for the disorder is congenital scoliosis. Although there is a slightly higher chance of low back pain with lumbar scoliosis, I felt strongly that she should not have surgery. I reminded her that patients with straight spines have the same type of pain after a lifting injury. She was also under a lot of personal stress and extremely angry. She had not fully participated in a conditioning program. I talked to her for over an hour about why she should not have an operation. She wanted to have seven levels of her spine fused. This included her whole lower back and her thoracic spine. She was determined to go ahead with the surgery. I was unwilling to do it, so she proceeded to have another surgeon fuse her whole lower back.

Didn’t work

She returned to me two years later in a wheelchair because of ongoing severe low back pain. Although the fusion had not completely healed, it was stable. She had yet another recommendation to have the weak spot in her fusion surgically repaired. The success rate of making the fusion solid is high. We are able to remove the hardware, re-graft the area, replace the hardware, and obtain a solid fusion most of the time. However, the chances of relieving her pain were almost zero. Her pre-operative mental state had markedly deteriorated after two more years of pain. There was nothing that could be done to surgically relieve her suffering. The tragedy was that she could still have done well with a structured rehab approach.

This situation occurred before I knew much about comprehensive rehabilitation and the importance of calming down the nervous system. Her main reason for returning to see me was to undergo yet another operation. She could not let go of the idea that surgery was the definitive solution. The tragedy is that her pain was so solvable without surgery. I don’t know her final outcome, as she never returned. She was even less open to non-surgical options.

Surgery is a not definitive solution for chronic pain

This is a common scenario. A person has ongoing chronic mental and physical pain and is justifiably angry about the whole situation. A surgeon offers them an option, which seems like a way out a dark situation even though there is no data to support the procedure. (3) I don’t blame her since there doesn’t seem like a lot of other options and surgery seems to be a “definitive solution.” But an operation should have never been offered to her that has less than a 30% chance of success. With anger in full gear, no one thinks clearly and the downside of a failed surgery is not fully comprehended. Then when a given surgery fails they often pursue surgery again and again.

Her situation was one of the major reasons I quit my surgical practice. I could no longer watch people have their lives destroyed with surgeries that should not have been considered. The DOC Journey is a platform that presents proven medical treatments in a manner to optimize surgical outcomes or completely avoid surgery. My book, Do You Really Need Spine Surgery? Take Control with Surgeon’s Advice clarifies the issues around the surgical decision-making. It is a much bigger deal than you can imagine and people just can’t comprehend the downside of a failed spine surgery. It has the potential to destroy your life as you know it.

Don’t let anger alter your decisions about surgery – or about anything. I have a little mantra that I keep in the forefront of my mind, “No action in a reaction.”

  1. Giesecke T, et al. “Evidence of augmented central pain processing in idiopathic chronic low back pain.” Arthritis and Rheumatism (2004); 50: 613-623.
  2. Schiavon, CC et al. Optimism and hope in chronic disease: A systematic review. Frontiers in psychology (2017); 7: 1-10.
  3. Carragee EJ, et al. “A Gold Standard Evaluation of the ‘Discogenic Pain’ Diag­nosis as Determined by Provocative Discography.” Spine (2006) 31:2115-2123.