How to Choose a Spine Surgeon

Patients with neck and back pain usually seek medical care first from their family doctor or primary care physician. However, many patients require the services of a spine specialist. A spine specialist is a physician who has completed additional years of medical training in the diagnosis and treatment of spinal disorders such as scoliosis, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, herniated discs, stenosis, spine injuries, fractured vertebrae, spinal deformity, tumors, infections, and congenital abnormalities. Most spine surgeons are either orthopaedic surgeons or neurosurgeons who are fellowship-trained in spine.
Elderly couple looking on a laptop computerWhen choosing a spine surgeon, it is important to make sure the doctor is board certified, fellowship trained and devotes at least 50% of his practice to the treatment of spinal disorders. Photo Source:

What to Look for in a Spine Surgeon 

It is important for patients to be as involved as possible in their own medical care. This includes the choice of doctors. Some managed care programs leave little room for choice, but if you are able to choose your physician, here are some guidelines on what to look for in a spine specialist:

Make sure the spine surgeon is board certified (or board eligible) and fellowship trained in spine. 

This means that in addition to the usual surgical residency requirements, he or she has completed a fellowship program in spine that included at least one additional year of training specific to spine surgery.

Choose a spine surgeon who devotes at least 50% of his or her practice to the treatment of spinal conditions. 

A physician who sees mostly spine patients will be more up-to-date on newer technologies and techniques than a physician who only sees spine patients occasionally.

In addition to the physician's credentials, make sure the physician you choose is someone you feel comfortable with.

After all, finding a physician you can trust is almost as important as his or her experience. Good communication is essential in a doctor/patient relationship, so ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the doctor answer all of your questions and provide you with enough information about your condition?
  • Does he or she spend enough time with you?
  • Is the physician reachable? Open-minded? A good listener?
  • Does he or she welcome a second opinion?

Talk to the physician about his or her experience with the latest techniques and technologies in spine surgery. 

How many procedures has he or she performed? Is the doctor willing to refer you to any former patients who may be available to share their experiences with you?

  • Talk to the physician, or someone in the office, about your medical insurance to find out what is covered and what you may be responsible for.
  • Choose a physician who is referred to you by a reliable source such as your primary care physician, or a friend, or relative.

Things to Look Out For

There are also a few things you should be cautious of when selecting a spine surgeon. Avoid any doctor who does the following:

  • Discourages, or does not allow second opinions.
  • Does not answer all of your questions, or makes you feel bad about asking them.
  • Tries to influence your decision to have surgery. Remember, it is totally up to you whether or not you have surgery. Your doctor's job is to provide you with enough information to comfortably make that decision.
  • Bypasses conservative treatment options. Surgery should always be the treatment of last resort—when other non-surgical options have been exhausted.
  • Is not forthcoming about treatments, techniques, costs, outcomes, and expectations for recovery.

If you have concerns about a particular physician, you can contact your state Medical Board to find out whether the practitioner has ever had disciplinary action taken against his or her license.

Updated on: 02/08/19
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