Who benefits from spine surgery?

Orthopaedics and Fitness
Back and Neck
Doctor looking at spine X-rays in a doctor's office.

Millions of people experience spine problems that cause pain or disability, but not all of them will require surgery.

"Of the people who have spine problems, a small number will ultimately require surgery," says Scott Rushton, MD, orthopaedic spine surgeon.

The reasons for spine surgery vary with a person's age and diagnosis. Teenagers may consider surgery to correct deformities, including scoliosis and curvature of the spine. Adults ages 20 to 50 may have problems with disks that have degenerated or slipped out of position, causing severe back pain and leg pain. Older adults may have spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that can press on the nerves, producing pain in the legs.

Surgery may be the only option in select cases--when a person is in severe pain, has instability from trauma, or has progressive nerve problems. For less severe problems, doctors try other treatments first, including physical therapy, medication, and spinal injections. If the problem persists, surgical options are discussed.

There are three different types of spine surgery:

  • Decompression: Bone or other tissue is removed to take pressure off a nerve of the spinal cord.
  • Stabilization or fusion: Bone grafts or metal rods and screws are used to fuse vertebrae together, making a strong bridge across a spinal segment.
  • Corrective procedures: Spinal fusion and other techniques are used to straighten deformities.

If you have a back problem, talk with your doctor first.

"Ask to be referred to a spine specialist if your condition doesn't improve after initial treatments," says Aubrey S. Okpaku, MD, neurosurgeon at Main Line Health-Jefferson Neurosurgery.

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