Having spine surgery is a big decision, and it's in your best interest to ask relevant questions so you know how to prepare, how to select a well qualified surgeon, and what to expect both immediately after the surgery and longer term.
Consider the following list a starting point for you to help guide you in your consultation with your surgeon; think about printing it out and taking it with you to your consultation.
Learn more: Preparation Before Back Surgery
See Specific Questions to Ask Your Spine Surgeon
Questions before you decide to have the surgery
- What type of surgery are you recommending? Why?
- What is the source of the pain that is being addressed? How do you know this?
Exploratory surgery is never done on the spine.
- Please explain the procedure in great detail.
The amount of information depends on your personal preferences. Some patients want to know everything, some not so much!
- What are my non-surgical options?
- What is the natural course of my condition if it is not surgically addressed?
- What would you recommend if I were your friend—would you recommend this same operation?
- How long will the surgery take?
- What are the side effects, potential risks, and potential complications of the surgery?
- Please explain the risks and how they relate to me personally.
For example, different risk factors like smoking, being overweight, or having grade 3 spondylolisthesis, etc., will affect surgical outcomes.
- What if, during my surgery, you encounter a different spine issue than you expected?
- Do I need to donate my own blood? If yes, why?
For most types of back surgery, blood does not need to be donated ahead of time.
- Do you perform the whole procedure? Will any students and/or other surgeons be doing any parts of the operation? If yes, who are they and what are their qualifications?
Some surgeons only do a small part of the operation while others do the whole thing. If another surgeon is required, e.g. a vascular surgeon, their role is important and it would be good to know their qualifications.
- Who else will assist you in the operation? What are their background and qualifications?
- What are the long-term consequences of the proposed procedure?
For example, will the operation ever need to be re-done? If it is a fusion, will it lead to degeneration at other levels of the spine?
For more information, see Back Surgery and Neck Surgery Overview
View our Spine Surgery Videos
Read more about Non-Surgical Options for Pain Relief
Watch: Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion (PLIF) Video
Questions about the surgeon
- How many times have you done this procedure?
Generally, when it comes to surgery, "practice makes perfect," so more experience is better. However, if the doctor is recommending something that is not often done, such as multi-level fusions, more experience would not necessarily be better.
- Are you board eligible or board certified?
You can usually look on the wall and see a certificate.
- Are you fellowship trained in spine surgery?
Fellowship training is more important if the surgery is a fusion, artificial disc replacement, or other more extensive procedure.
- If I want to get a second opinion, can you recommend a surgeon I should go to?
The recommendation should be someone not in the same practice.
- Statistically, what is the success rate for this type of surgery? What is your personal success rate, and how many of this type of surgery have you done?
- Can I talk to other patients who have had a similar procedure?
The patient will have to sign a HIPAA release form, but typically, happy patients want to share their success stories.
Any defensiveness on the part of the surgeon when you ask these types of questions may be a red flag. A surgeon with good results and appropriate qualifications will not be threatened by these types of questions and will respect your attention to these matters.
Questions about what to expect after the surgery
- What kind of pain should I expect after the surgery and for how long?
- How long is the hospital stay?
- May a family member spend the night with me in the hospital?
- How do you manage the pain in the hospital?
- Which pain medications will I be sent home with? What are possible side effects of these prescriptions (e.g. constipation, drowsiness, etc.)?
- Will you know before the surgery if I will need a back brace afterwards? If so, will I be fitted for one before the surgery?
- Will I need any other medical equipment (like a walker) when I go home? Should I get an adjustable bed or sleep downstairs?
- Who can I call if I have questions after the surgery? What is the process for communication?
- How often will I see you after my surgery?
- What symptoms would warrant a call to your office?
- What symptoms would warrant immediate medical attention?
- What limitations will I have after surgery and for how long?
- How long should I wait to bathe?
- How long will I be out of work? School?
- What kind of help will I need when I return home?
- When can I drive again?
- When can I resume normal (light) household chores?
- What expectations do you have for my recovery?
- When is it safe to resume sexual relations?
- How soon after the surgery can I start physical therapy?
Read more about Back Braces
Read more: Rehabilitation After Spine Surgery