The Truth About Back Pain Surgery

Americans spend almost $86 billion a year on back problems, which is comparable to the amount spent on cancer treatment despite the record number of back surgeries performed.

Researchers at a University of Washington study have compared reports on everything from surgery to medications to manipulations to over the counter pain relief products. The report indicates there has not been a significant improvement in back pain relief in Americans.

Orthopedic medicine has been tainted by questionable alliances with spinal pain and surgical product manufacturers. The medical community even has a term for the failure of an operation to improve the patient’s condition called “failed back surgery syndrome.”

Is Back Pain Surgery Effective?

More than one million people yearly undergo surgery for spinal problems in the U.S., which is double that of most other developed countries and five times that of the United Kingdom, reports Richard A. Deyo, M.D., professor of evidence-based family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. Charles Rosen, M.D., clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine reports that only five percent of people with back pain really need surgery.

The chance of finding relief for chronic back pain requires an understanding of what is malfunctioning in the spinal area and seeking the appropriate medical specialist and asking the right questions.

Most back surgical procedures fail for a very simple reason: The operation was not the appropriate treatment for the condition because usually, the surgeon failed to isolate the source of the pain.

A thorough workup of the specific cause of your back pain is required prior to any consideration of surgery. Many times, surgeons recommend back surgery as an attempt to alleviate complaints of pain without any definitive justification of surgery. If a surgeon recommends surgery, always get a second opinion from someone outside of your doctor’s practice and include a non-surgical specialist such as a physical and rehabilitation medicine physician. If the second opinion offers a markedly different recommendation from the original surgeon, get a third opinion.

What Really Does Help With Back Pain?

Back pain usually resolves with time. Most conservative treatments are as effective with better improvement in pain than surgical intervention.


The American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society issued treatment guidelines for use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory products such as ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). These medications were found to give moderate benefit and prescription medications were not deemed any more effective than over-the-counter preparations.


Many modalities such as exercise therapy, yoga, and Pilates are recommended for back pain sufferers, which can be designed for specific complaints by a physical therapist.

Chiropractic Treatments

Many back pain sufferers swear by chiropractors. Chiropractic manipulations are effective in improving movement and performing activities of daily living.

Epidural Injections

Injections of an anesthetic (such as lidocaine) as well as steroids (usually cortisone) are unable to cure back problems but provide modest and short relief for several months at most.


Most studies show marked improvement of back pain symptoms with ten acupuncture treatments over a seven week period.

Multidisciplinary Programs

Impressive success rates have resulted from an approach which involves everything from a specific exercise program to biofeedback to meditation. Many chronic back pain sufferers are turning to pain centers as an alternative to surgery.