Spine Surgery: Questions to Ask Your Doctor

9 questions to ask your spine surgeon before undergoing neck or back surgery.

Understandably, having surgery makes many people feel anxious and nervous. If you are scheduled to have spinal surgery, one way to relieve your anxiety about the procedure is to learn all you can about the procedure.

The following list, based on information from the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, are questions you should ask your doctor before you have surgery. Print the list and take it with you to help you remember what you want to ask. If you are in too much pain, ill or nervous to ask any questions, bring a friend along with you to your surgeon's office. They can speak for you and may also be able to help you remember all of the information your doctor gives you.

Senior patient in consultation with a DoctorAsk your surgeon to explain the procedure and describe to you exactly what is going to be done. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

What type of spine surgery are you recommending?

There are many different types of spine surgery. Ask your surgeon to explain the procedure and describe to you exactly what is going to be done. For example, if you are having a discectomy, find out why it is necessary to remove the disc. For other types of spine surgery, find out exactly where in the spinal column your surgery will take place and if it will be done from the front (anteriorly) or the back (posteriorly).

Also, ask your surgeon if any instrumentation (eg, screws, plates) will be used, if you will need a bone graft, and how large your incision will be.

Your surgeon may be able to draw a picture, show you a diagram, give you written information or refer you to other resources such as books, videos, or websites that can help you better understand the procedure.

Why do I need back surgery?

Find out the purpose of the surgery and how it relates to the diagnosis of your spinal condition. For example, is the procedure recommended to relieve pain? Reduce symptoms? Improve function?

Are there treatment alternatives to spine surgery?

For most spinal conditions, surgery is considered only after conservative, or non-surgical, treatments have been tried. Talk to your surgeon about other options to see if there is any reason to try a different treatment option or postpone surgery. If you have tried various conservative treatments, tell your surgeon about them and why they did or did not alleviate your symptoms and/or help your condition.

What are the benefits of having the neck or back operation?

Find out what you will gain from the surgery. For example, a spinal fusion may mean you can return to work again pain free. Ask your surgeon how long the benefits may last or if you may need another operation at a later date.

What are my risks of having spine surgery?

All surgeries carry potential risk of complications, such as infection, excessive bleeding, reactions to anesthesia, and nerve injury. Be sure you understand all the possible complications before you agree to have spine surgery or any surgical procedure. Also, talk to your surgeon about any side effects after the neck or back surgery, such as swelling, soreness, and pain and how these will be managed.

What can happen if I don’t have back surgery?

After you have learned about the potential benefits and risks, ask your surgeon what could happen if you chose not to have the recommended spine surgery. Will your spinal disorder progressively worsen? How could not having back surgery increase pain or other symptom related to your diagnosis?

Where can I get a second surgical treatment opinion?

Getting another spine specialist’s opinion about whether or not to have surgery is a great way to ensure you are making the right decision. Many health insurance plans cover getting a second opinion. Call your insurance company to see if your plan will pay for a second opinion.

What is your experience with this type of spine surgery in patients like me?

Ask your surgeon how many of these surgeries he or she has performed, and what were the surgical outcomes? Did other patients with your diagnosis benefit from the back surgical procedure your surgeon recommends to you? Get a feel for his or her experience with your spinal disorder. Ask your surgeon if he or she can refer you to someone who has also had this operation under his/her care.

Where will the spinal surgery be performed?

Most surgeons work out of more than one hospital and/or ambulatory care center. Find out where your spine surgery will be performed. If you have a choice, choose the facility that has the most experience and the highest success rate in treating your condition. Today, many spinal surgeries are done on an outpatient basis, which means you may not need to stay in the hospital overnight. Talk to your doctor about whether or not your neck or back surgery is expected to require you to stay in the hospital and for how long.

Updated on: 03/06/19
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