Do You Really Need Spine Surgery?

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

In today’s medical environment, big business is taking over in almost every realm. The focus is on productivity, instead of ensuring the highest quality of care. For spine surgeons like myself, the revenue generators are procedures and “interventions” – even though most of them have been shown to be ineffective.

New technology has made the situation worse instead of better. The interventions are larger, more expensive and much riskier. You, the patients, have become targets and opportunities.

The last five years of my practice became increasingly intolerable. I would see several patients a week who had surgery performed or recommended on spines that didn’t have a surgical problem. I hit a tipping point when I saw an athletic older gentleman who had his spine fused from his neck to his pelvis for muscular thoracic pain after lifting weights. He went from playing tennis and golf to being housebound, on high-dose opioids and had a psychotic break.

He was fused in a crooked position and could no longer see his feet.  He had to undergo a second 12-hour surgery just to stand him up straight again.

His case was a significant factor in my decision to retire from my practice as a complex spine surgeon in December of 2018 to pursue educating the public as to the nature and extent of the problem, as well as present viable solutions.

Fusions Have Low Success Rate

Spine surgery works wonderfully well when there is a distinct identifiable anatomical abnormality and pain is in the expected region of the body. However, surgery works poorly if the source of pain is unclear.

There is a widespread belief among patients and many physicians that when everything else has been tried and failed, then surgery is the next logical step. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Defining the correct anatomical problem to surgically treat is problematic. One of the most glaring examples of blindly proceeding with surgery in spite of the evidence is performing a fusion for low back pain (LBP).

It is well-documented that disc degeneration, bone spurs, arthritis, bulging discs, etc. are rarely the cause of LBP. Often, we really don’t know where the pain might be arising.

The success rate of fusions for LBP is less than 30%.  Most people expect a much better outcome and the resulting disappointment is problematic.

Another major problem is that when a surgical procedure is performed in a person with chronic pain in any part of the body, he or she may experience chronic pain at the new surgical site between 40 and 60% of the time. Five to ten percent of the time, the pain is permanent.

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Many patients have told me undergoing spine surgery was one of the worst decisions of their life: “If I just knew how bad this could be, I never would have done it.”

Consider what happens when you go to the dentist with a painful cavity that may require a root canal, crown or extraction. There is a defined problem, and the pain will usually disappear once the problem is solved.

But what if you had gum disease or jaw pain, and a tooth doesn’t appear to be the source? Would you let your dentist randomly work on different teeth to see if it might help?

Making an accurate diagnosis of the problem is always the first step in solving it. 

Understanding the Whole Picture

Chronic pain is a complex problem that requires time and a multi-pronged approach to treatment. Current neuroscience research has unlocked the puzzle of chronic pain and it’s a solvable problem using the correct paradigm. But in the current medical climate, surgeons are being asked (and pushed) to move too quickly, and not factor in all of the variables that affect pain and surgical outcomes.

One 2014 research paper reported that only 10% of orthopedic spine surgeons and neurosurgeons are addressing and treating the well-documented variables in patients that predict poor outcomes. For example, one common problem for patients is lack of sleep. A large four-year study out of Israel demonstrated that insomnia induces low back pain. If a patient is sleep-deprived for just one night, his or her pain tolerance drops dramatically.

There are two sets of variables to consider when deciding whether to undergo spine surgery.

1) Your anatomy:  Has your doctor used an MRI or diagnostic test to identify the anatomical problem? If there isn’t a clearly identifiable source of pain, then surgery isn’t an option, regardless of how much pain you are experiencing.

2) Your nervous system and body chemistry:  Are you calm? Or are you stressed and hyper-vigilant? If your nervous system is on “high alert” for any reason, the outcomes of surgery are predictably poor, especially if you can’t identify the anatomical problem.  

If you are stressed, there are simple, consistently effective measures that can calm your nervous system and help you become pain free, often without surgery.

We already have the knowledge and technology to offer superb care and much of the data is being ignored. Whatever you decide to do or what resources you might use, don’t jump into spine surgery until you understand the whole picture. It may be the biggest decision of your life. 

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Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.