Back surgery: When is it a good idea?

Low back pain is one of the most common reasons people see a health care provider. Find out what can cause back pain and whether surgery might help.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Back surgery can help ease some causes of back pain, but it's rarely necessary. Most back pain gets better on its own within three months.

Low back pain is one of the most common reasons people see a health care provider. Common treatments may include anti-inflammatory medicines, heat or ice, and physical therapy.

Do you need back surgery?

Back surgery might be an option if other treatments haven't worked, and your pain is disabling.

Many people with back pain also have pain that goes down a leg. These symptoms are often caused by pinched nerves in the spine. Nerves may become pinched for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Disk problems. Disks are the rubbery cushions that separate the bones of your spine. A bulging or herniated disk can sometimes get too close to a spinal nerve. This can cause pain and affect how the nerve works.
  • Overgrowth of bone. Osteoarthritis can result in bone growths, often called spurs, on your spine. This excess bone can reduce the amount of space available for nerves to pass through openings in your spine.

Back surgery relieves this leg pain better than it does back pain. Many people who have back surgery continue to have pain in their backs.

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

Types of back surgery

Different types of back surgery include:

  • Diskectomy. This procedure removes the herniated portion of a disk.
  • Laminectomy. This procedure removes bone at the back of the spine to make more room for the spinal cord and nerves.
  • Fusion. Spinal fusion removes the arthritic joints and often uses metal implants to help permanently connect two or more bones in the spine.
  • Artificial disks. These devices are made of plastic and metal. They can replace the damaged cushion between two spinal bones.

Consider all options

Before you agree to back surgery, consider getting a second opinion from a qualified spine specialist. Back and leg pain can be a complex issue that may require a team of health professionals to diagnose and treat.

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Sept. 30, 2022 See more In-depth