May 23, 2022

4 common myths about spine surgery

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A spine surgeon busts common spine surgery misconceptions with treatment truths.

Neck or back pain can highly affect your quality of life by preventing you from doing everyday tasks and your favorite activities. If you’ve had persistent pain, you may be wondering if spine surgery can provide relief. Or you might have already had a discussion with your doctor about whether you’re a candidate for back surgery.

If you’re considering spine surgery, knowing the truths behind some common myths can help you make the decision that’s right for you. Scott Zuckerman, M.D., M.P.H., a neurological surgeon with Vanderbilt Spine Center, provides the facts.

Myth: Surgical treatment is the first option.

Truth: Spine surgery is reserved for when other treatments haven’t helped.

Spine surgery becomes a consideration after patients have had a long course of conservative therapy, Zuckerman said. Conservative therapy may include physical therapy, nerve pain medications, spinal injections and more.

“If they’re still having pain that affects their quality of life and they can’t accomplish the things they want to do, such as work, exercise, spending time with family,” he added, “then we consider surgery.” Zuckerman explained that prior to any surgical decision, he has a long conversation with his patients and their families about their quality of life and whether they’re ready for surgery.

Myth: Physical therapy is just putting a Band-Aid on the problem.

Truth: The goal of any treatment is to get your pain under control.

“Physical therapy can definitely do some great things, as can other methods of conservative therapy.” Zuckerman said. When it comes to spine surgery or any other treatment, he added, “the goal is not necessarily to make your MRI look like a 20-year-old’s MRI; it’s to get your symptoms under control so you can get back to living life how you want to live it. We have an outstanding team of nonoperative spine doctors who specialize in noninvasive ways to get your neck, arm, back or leg pain under control.”

If physical therapy can improve your core strength and improve your back and leg pain symptoms, that —along with continued exercise — is likely all you need to get back to living life. “Then we’ve done our job,” he said.

Myth: Spine surgery is an immediate fix for all back pain.

Truth: Spine surgery involves some pre- and post-op commitment.

Sometimes patients may need to lose weight, stop smoking, treat underlying conditions, or change or stop medications before undergoing spine surgery. “Taking care of those things before surgery gives you the best chance of recovering afterward and achieving the best result,” Zuckerman explained.

After surgery, patients will need to continue with the positive changes they’ve made prior to the procedure to continue to ensure the best outcome. “Patients need a good attitude and a lot of motivation and perseverance,” he added.

Myth: You’re bedridden after spine surgery.

Truth: Movement is one of the best things you can do during your recovery.

“Even with some of the biggest surgeries we do,” Zuckerman said, “we get patients up and walking the next day.” Some exercise and activity restrictions will temporarily apply, and patients may need to follow certain modifications. But in general, walking, riding a recumbent bike or using an elliptical machine will all help with recovery, he added.

Small-size photo, a couple in bike helmets standing outdoors with their bikes.

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Vanderbilt Spine Center specialists work together to find the best treatment for each patient and to give the expert care and support each deserves, providing innovative non-surgical and surgical treatments for back and neck pain, sciatica and other spine conditions.

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