Surgery for Upper Back Pain

Reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD

In treating upper back pain, surgery is generally a "last resort" option. If you try several months of non-surgical treatment options, such as physical therapy and medications, and you're still in pain, your doctor may recommend surgery. Rest assured: only 5% of people end up needing surgery to treat back problems.
For some severe cases, the doctor may recommend surgery right away. Some examples of severe cases are:

The surgical procedure is determined by what is causing your pain, and the surgeon will make the best recommendation for the type of procedure. Usually, surgeries for upper back pain involved removing what's causing pain and then fusing the spine to control movement. When the surgeon removes tissue that's pressing on a nerve, it's called a decompression surgery. Fusion is a stabilization surgery, and often, a decompression and fusion are done at the same time.

Traditional decompression surgical options include:

After part of a disc or vertebra has been taken out, your spine may be unstable, meaning that it moves in abnormal ways. That makes you more at risk for serious neurological injury, and you don't want that. The surgeon will need to stabilize your spine. Traditionally, this has been done with a fusion.

In spine stabilization by fusion, the surgeon creates an environment where the bones in your spine will fuse together over time (usually over several months or longer). The surgeon uses a bone graft (usually using bone from your own body, but it's possible to use donor bone as well) or a biological substance (which will stimulate bone growth). Your surgeon may use spinal instrumentation—wires, cables, screws, rods, and plates—to increase stability as the bones fuse. The fusion will stop movement between the vertebrae, providing long-term stability.

If you know the exact diagnosis of your upper back pain, you can read more specific articles about surgical techniques here on SpineUniverse:

If your doctor recommends surgery, always ask the purpose of the operation, results you can expect, and possible complications.

Feel free to ask for a second opinion if back surgery is suggested; this is your right as a patient. Your doctor will be happy to refer you to a specialist to re-evaluate your condition.

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What Is Upper Back Pain?