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?
Herniated disk and bone spurs on spine
Herniated disk and bone spurs on spine
As the spine ages, it's more likely to have bone spurs or herniated disks. These problems can shrink the amount of space available for the spinal cord and the nerves that branch off it.
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.
Sept. 30, 2022
From Mayo Clinic to your inbox
Sign up for free, and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips and current health topics, like COVID-19, plus expertise on managing health.
ErrorEmail field is required
ErrorInclude a valid email address
To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which
information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with
other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could
include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected
health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health
information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of
privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on
the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.
Thank you for subscribing!
You'll soon start receiving the latest Mayo Clinic health information you requested in your inbox.
Sorry something went wrong with your subscription
Please, try again in a couple of minutes
See more In-depth
- Firestein GS, et al. Low back pain. In: Firestein & Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 11th ed. Elsevier; 2021. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Aug. 2, 2022.
- Winn HR, ed. Nonsurgical and postsurgical management of low back pain. In: Youmans and Winn Neurological Surgery. 8th ed. Elsevier; 2023. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Aug. 2, 2022.
- Chou R. Subacute and chronic low back pain: Surgical treatment. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Aug. 2, 2022.
- Frontera WR, et al., eds. Lumbar degenerative disease. In: Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Musculoskeletal Disorders, Pain, and Rehabilitation. 4th ed. Elsevier; 2019. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Aug. 2, 2022.
- Knight CL, et al. Treatment of acute low back pain. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Aug. 2, 2022.
- Azar FM, et al. Degenerative disorders of the thoracic and lumbar spine. In: Campbell's Operative Orthopaedics. 14th ed. Elsevier; 2021. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Aug. 2, 2022.
- Artificial disk replacement in the lumbar spine. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/artificial-disk-replacement-in-the-lumbar-spine. Accessed Aug. 4, 2022.