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What's It Like? ... To get spine surgery

There are several reasons a person might get spine surgery, such as bone changes associated with spinal stenosis or a herniated disc, tumors or spinal conditions such as scoliosis.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: July 1, 2012

Why get spine surgery?

Your spine is made up of 26 bone discs known as vertebrae. The vertebrae in your spine protect your spinal cord. Between the vertebrae, you'll find intervertebral disks, which serve as shock absorbers for your spine.

Your spine has three segments that, when viewed from the side, look like c-shaped curves. The segments are known as the cervical spine, thoracic spine and lumbar spine. These curves help you stand upright.

Your spinal cord runs through your spine, traveling through vertebrae. Nerves branch out of your spinal cord, carrying messages to your brain and muscles.

There are several reasons a person might get spine surgery, such as bone changes associated with spinal stenosis or a herniated disc, tumors or spinal conditions such as scoliosis.

A person becomes a candidate for spine surgery after conservative treatments fail. If a person is still in chronic pain after physical therapy, activity modification, anti-inflammatory medications, epidural steroid injections or chiropractic treatments, then he or she might be a good candidate for spine surgery. Back surgery is only needed in a small percent of cases.

Different types of spinal surgery include a diskectomy, the removal of a herniated disk; laminectomy, which relieves pressure caused by spinal stenosis; fusion, to connect two or more bones in the spine; vertebroplasty, to stabilize fractures and relieve pain; and artificial disk implantation, a treatment alternative to spinal fusion.

What happens when you get spinal surgery?

Some hospitals offer “minimally invasive” spine surgery. Generally, anyone who's a candidate for surgery is a candidate for minimally invasive surgery.

The difference between traditional spine surgery and minimally invasive surgery is in the technique.

With a traditional spine operation, a surgeon will make a cut that's between six inches and eight inches long. To get to a disc in the spine, the surgeon must go through the muscle. The surgeon will scrape the muscle from the bone. The disc itself is deep, and the surgeon will make a cut similar to a ditch in the back, starting wide and coning down to get to the problem.

With a minimally invasive spine procedure, the surgeon does not have to remove the muscle from the bone. Instead, doctors dilate the muscle, pushing a small needlelike wire through the muscle. The surgeon is able to create a half-inch hole by dilating the muscle. The surgeon then repairs the spine through the hole.

Does it hurt?

Any time you have back surgery, it will be painful, especially if it involves spinal fusions.

After a traditional spinal surgery, your body will develop scar tissue where the muscles were cut. Scar tissue can cause pain if it binds the lumbar nerve root with fibrous adhesions. Some controversy exists around this topic.

If you suffer from continuous pain after a back surgery, you should talk with your doctor. Your doctor can perform tests and try to pinpoint the reason you're in pain.

If you receive a laminectomy, which is performed to relieve pain from abnormal pressure on the nerves, you shouldn't experience a lot of discomfort. Some patients who receive a minimally invasive laminectomy leave the hospital the same day. Patients who receive a traditional laminectomy usually leave the hospital within a day.

Patients who receive a spinal fusion surgery, which joins two vertebrae in the spine, will be in the hospital for a few days. These patients are generally on pain medicine either by mouth or IV. Medical staff will teach spinal fusion patients how to move properly. For example, patients might be taught how to get out of bed without twisting their spines.

Patients who had chronic back pain before a spinal fusion surgery still might have pain afterward. Losing weight and getting exercise can help patients feel better.

With spinal fusion surgeries, you're usually on pain medication for about a month. This is based on the fact that a surgeon is rearranging your spine, putting it back in place and bolting it in place.

With a minimally invasive spinal fusion surgery, you could recover more quickly, meaning less pain. Some patients are able to stop taking their pain medications more quickly if they've had a minimally invasive procedure. Although doctors have reported seeing patients who receive minimally invasive procedures recover more quickly, there isn't yet enough scientific evidence to prove this.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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