Back surgery: When is it a good idea?

Back pain is extremely common, and surgery often fails to relieve it. Find out why your back hurts and whether surgery might help. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Trauma, aging, improper body mechanics, and normal wear and tear can all injure your spine. Damage to any part of your back or pressure on the nerves in your spine can cause back pain and other symptoms. If you have ongoing back pain, maybe you've wondered — could back surgery help?

In fact, back surgery is needed in only a small percentage of cases. Most back problems can be taken care of with nonsurgical treatments, such as anti-inflammatory medication, ice, heat, gentle massage and physical therapy. When conservative treatments don't help, back surgery may offer relief. But it doesn't help every type of back pain.

Do you need back surgery?

Back surgery might be needed:

  • If you have a condition that compresses your spinal nerves, causing debilitating back pain or numbness along the back of your leg.
  • In some instances when you have bulging or ruptured (herniated) disks — the rubbery cushions separating the bones in your spine. However, many people with bulging disks have no pain.
  • If you have broken bones (fractured vertebrae) or other damage to your spinal column from an injury that leaves your spine unstable.
  • If you have vertebral fractures and an unstable spine related to osteoporosis.
  • If you've first tried conservative measures and they fail to relieve your back pain or other symptoms.

The following conditions may require surgery if they're progressive, painful or causing nerve compression:

  • Scoliosis, a curvature of the spine
  • Kyphosis, a humpback deformity
  • Spondylolisthesis, the forward slippage of a segment of the spine
  • Spinal stenosis, narrowing of the spinal canal typically from arthritis
  • Radiculopathy, the irritation and inflammation of a nerve caused by a herniated disk
  • Degenerative disk disease, the development of pain in a disk as a result of its normal wear and tear
Jul. 07, 2011