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

Back surgery can help relieve some causes of back pain, but it's rarely necessary. Most back pain resolves on its own within two months.

Low back pain is one of the most common ailments seen by family doctors. Back problems typically respond to nonsurgical treatments — such as anti-inflammatory medications, heat, gentle massage and physical therapy.

Do you need back surgery?

Back surgery might be an option if conservative treatments haven't worked and your pain is persistent and disabling. Back surgery often more predictably relieves associated pain or numbness that goes down one or both arms or legs.

These symptoms often are caused by compressed nerves in your spine. Nerves may become compressed for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Disk problems. Bulging or ruptured (herniated) disks — the rubbery cushions separating the bones of your spine — can sometimes press too tightly against a spinal nerve and affect its function.
  • Overgrowth of bone. Osteoarthritis can result in bone spurs on your spine. This excess bone can narrow the amount of space available for nerves to pass through openings in your spine.

It can be very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of your back pain, even if your X-rays show that you have disk problems or bone spurs. X-rays taken for other reasons often reveal bulging or herniated disks that cause no symptoms and need no treatment.

Jul. 31, 2014