Free guide – “Questions to Ask Your Surgeon“.
Step 1: General Principles – The grid

The decision to undergo any surgery is an important one. Many people will research out buying a car in more detail than deciding what should be done to their body. Every surgery has risks and all of us in medicine have seen the simplest of procedures end up in a disaster. There is also a tendency to view surgery in a similar way to taking your car to the shop for a repair. “If you just fix the problem, my pain will disappear.” Cars don’t have pain, emotions, stress hormones, or consciousness. There should not be any comparison between the infinite complexity of the human organism and a machine. It is critical to understand all the known factors that affect a surgical outcome and then decide whether your situation warrants the risk of surgery. This grid will help you organize your thinking in order to make a reasonable decision.

Step 2: The source of Your Pain

The first variable that must be clearly defined to your satisfaction is whether there is a defined structural problem.  Remember to be defined as a structural issue, the symptoms you are having must match the level of the problem.  For instance, if there is a bone spur next to your fifth nerve root, then the pain should be down the side of your leg into your great toe.  If the pain is just in your back or groin, then it does not match, and would not be considered a structural problem.

Step 3: The impact of stress on your pain and decision-making

The next step is to determine whether you are in the type A or type B group. Be very honest with yourself whether you are handling your stresses well or if your coping skills are being stretched beyond your capacity.  Your doctor can give you some guidance and even steer you towards testing that can help you decide.  Everyone has stress.  However, if you are not sleeping well, having uncontrollable anxiety, and irritable you probably are in the B category.

Step 4: Understand the magnitude of the surgery

If the pain is in a matching distribution, then you must decide whether the pain is severe enough to undergo any surgical procedure.  You are the one having the pain.  We as physicians, can only guess at how much of a problem you are having based on what you tell us.  For example, pain that consistently limits your function and is there most of the day would seem like a severe enough problem to perform surgery.  However, patients will sometimes request surgery when they only have numbness and tingling.  If is uncomfortable then maybe surgery is worth the risk.  If it is just an annoyance, it should probably be left alone.

Sometimes the structural problem is compelling.  It is common to see extremely severe constriction of the nerves in the lower back and have the symptoms be fairly mild.  This is one situation that one should proceed with surgery.

Step 5: Making the final surgical decision

One final word of caution when making a decision to proceed with surgery.  Don’t make the decision because “there is nothing else that can be done.”  I have learned the hard way that getting into a bad business deal is much worse than missing a good one.  Another analogy would be in basketball when a player throws up a desperation shot.  The term commonly used is “throwing up a prayer.”  If you can break down the pain experience into its component parts, you can make a very specific informed decision jointly with your surgeon. It is a major permanently life-altering decision. Don’t cut any corners.

If you do not have a clearly defined structural problem, let it go. Our first role as surgeons is to define the issue. It is an area that we do well. The variation occurs in how we each define structural versus non-structural.  If you have a test that shows a “probable or possible” source of the pain, do not make any decisions at this point to proceed with surgery.



Step 6: Stories of Surgical Despair

Surgeons often assume that if a patient still wants surgery after they have heard potential downside of spine surgery, he or she must be hurting enough to undergo the risks. What a surgeons may not understand is how desperate you are to escape from your misery and you’ll try anything. Surgery seems like a definitive solution. If is if there is a problem that is amenable to surgery, is your physical and mental condition is optimized? Many surgeons don’t feel that this factor is their responsibility.

What you may not being told is that many surgeries are being performed on normally aging spines and there is a dismal success rate with this scenario. Additionally, there is a significant chance of making you worse – much worse. It is not possible for a patient to understand how completely your life can be destroyed by a failed spine surgery. This section is intended to provide that perspective from hearing patients’ stories.

I am not saying that you should or should not undergo surgery. Just take the potential downside into account as you make this decision.