Is it Time to See a Spine Surgeon?

If you've thought about visiting a doctor to address that nagging ache in your back, you're not alone. In fact, it's among the top reasons for physician office visits each year. But with so many different types of back pain and a vast array of treatment options, it can sometimes be difficult or intimidating to know when you should visit your primary care physician, a physical therapist, a chiropractor, or a spine specialist. 
Doctor Speaking with a patient, pointing to a computer monitorPatients suffering from back pain that doesn't go away on its own usually travel down the "worst case scenario" road in their minds and often wonder if they'll need back surgery to correct the problem. They also worry that visiting a spine surgeon will absolutely equal a need for surgery or that they first must be sure they need surgery in order to even schedule an appointment to see a spine specialist. The truth (at least in my practice) is that many first-time office visits with patients result in a discussion of options and medical treatment recommendations that are much more conservative than surgery, such as physical therapy, acunpuncture, medication, anti-inflammatories or steroids (by mouth or injection). Though back problems can be very painful and may interrupt routine activities, in many cases they can be treated non-surgically to improve or resolve in a few weeks or months.

In most other cases, however, if you've seen your primary care physician or chiropractor for a physical exam and you've been diagnosed with a spinal condition that has not subsided given the time and treatments they have recommended, you should seek consultation with a board-certified orthopaedic or neurosurgeon who exclusively specializes in management of the spine, especially if you're experiencing any of the following symptoms with your back pain:

  • Pain that radiates down an arm or leg
  • Fever, chills, night sweats or weight loss
  • Inability to move an arm or leg, or weakness in a previously functioning limb
  • Bowel or bladder problems
  • Difficulty controlling one or both feet

There are other cases in which you should consult a spine surgeon right away, like back pain that occurs following a significant trauma such as a fall or car accident. Other important factors to consider when deciding to see a spine surgeon include your level of back pain and your ability to effectively function on a daily basis. If the pain persists over a long period of time and is not alleviated through non-surgical remedies, or if you're unable to perform your normal activities such as sleeping restfully, working, driving, or sitting at a computer without experiencing pain, it's adviseable to see a spine surgeon for a consultation.

If you've already visited a physician or other care provider and aren't comfortable with his or her treatment recommendations, seek a second opinion from a spine specialist. Getting more than one opinion can help you feel more comfortable with treatment recommendations. Most importantly, remember that it's critical to feel confident in your doctor or surgeon and their plan for your treatment.