What to Ask Before Spine Surgery

There's No Such Thing as a Stupid Surgery Question

Question: I'm going to have surgery for spinal stenosis. What questions should I ask the surgeon prior to the surgery? I feel like there's a lot I want to know, but I don't want to ask any stupid questions.
— Macon, MOWoman with family speaking with Doctor and assistant Answer: No question is a stupid question when you're facing surgery. You have a right to know everything that's going to happen before, during, and after the surgery, and you also have a right to have all the risks and benefits fully explained to you.

I know: me saying that no question is stupid and that you have a right to all that surgery information doesn't make asking the questions magically easier. Surgeons can be intimidating, but they can also be very interested in patient education. They want you to understand what's happening so that you can feel confident in your decision.

You're the patient; it's your body that will have the operation. You know, surgery is like any other major decision in your life, and before you buy a house or a car (or in this economy, buy gas for your car), you probably do your research and try to understand everything you can—even if that means asking "stupid" or "obvious" questions of someone who knows more than you do.

Some basic questions you should think about asking are:

  • What kind of surgery are you recommending for me?
  • Why are you recommending that particular surgery?
  • Are there other kinds of surgery done for my condition? Why aren't you recommending those?
  • How much experience do you have with this procedure?
  • What are the risks associated with this procedure? How likely are those risks?
  • How will this surgery benefit me?
  • If I don't have this surgery, what will happen? Will my condition get significantly worse? Will I have a lot more pain?
  • Would you recommend that I get a second opinion? (If this question crosses your mind, then you probably should get a second opinion. It's completely acceptable to ask for a second opinion from another surgeon.)
  • How is the procedure done?
  • How long will the surgery take?
  • How long will I need to be in the hospital after the surgery?
  • Will there be a lot of pain after the surgery as I recover? What's your plan for dealing with the pain?
  • What are possible complications during recovery? What are signs of those complications, and at what point should I call you?
  • What's a realistic expectation for full recovery? How would you define full recovery in my case?
  • Can you explain that one more time? (If you haven't understood something, ask for clarification.)

Those are just some ideas based on questions that I've heard from patients preparing for spine surgery. If you have other concerns, make sure you address those, too. If it will make you feel more comfortable, you can have all the questions written down ahead of time. That will help you avoid walking out of the office and saying, "Oh no, I still don't know [fill in the blank here]."

When you ask all the questions you need to, you'll feel more prepared for your surgery. You'll completely understand what you're getting into and how it will help you.