(I posted this first as a reply to a much older entry, then decided to make it its own thread)
I wanted to supplement AllBetter's experience with that of my own which was also a tremendous success.
I herniated my L5-S1 disc pulling a stump when I was 26... felt it go. Subsequently had what I called "episodes" about 2x each year in which I unexpectedly felt something like a zipper in lower back followed by a hand grenade. I would be layed up for 2-4 days each time. I never went to the doctor about this because back problems ran in my family and I was always just taught to put ice on it and suck up the pain till it went away.
By the time I reached the age of 46 it was happening too frequently. The last straw was terrifying my young kids by collapsing on the kitchen floor grimacing and shuddering in pain... they thought I was having a heart attack. I did a lot of research about options then, after seeking many references, I found a great surgeon. After looking at my MRI she asked why I had waited so long to address this! I asked about all the less drastic options but was told that I was waaaay past any of those. She told me that the herniation, degeneration, and arthritis was not life threatening in any way but was rather just a "quality of life" issue, ie if I wanted to continue living in the manner I had been for the past several years--- it had gotten to the point where everything I did included a backup plan for if/when I had another "episode", it was simply impacting my life too much.
So, I had the PLIF. I won't lie to you here, the immediate post-op pain was incredible... even with the morphine drip, any kind of movement was terrible. The surgeon had me stand up less than 24 hours after the procedure and, I'm sorry to tell you, it was the worst pain I've ever experienced... but I got thru it.
Went home after 4 nights at the hospital, recuperating over the next 6-8 weeks on short term disability. Lots of walking, at first with a walker then a cane then nothing. Lots of Vicoden (which never made me high or sick or anything). I had (and still have) great insurance such that I returned to work doing half days for another 4 weeks before resuming full time.
I'd say it took me a full year before I finally got as good as I think I'm ever going to get. I got about 80% of everything I had hoped for from the surgery (ie, complete relief and return to pre-injury condition--- yeah, I knew this to be unrealistic but, hey, hope for the best (and plan for the worst)). I'm a bit stiffer than I was pre-op but this hasn't affected me in any way. The fantastic part, however, is that I have not experienced even a single "episode" since having the surgery.
So, looking back after these 6 years since my "modification", I'd say my procedure was a tremendous success and has very greatly improved the quality of my life. At 52 now, I'm very, very thankful for my surgeon and sent her a bunch of roses on my 5 year anniversary--- she said that success stories like my own were what kept her going.
Its alright to be scared of back surgery... after all, it is somewhat of a roll of the dice. But the benefits can be tremendous, myself having been there. Find yourself a good surgeon, do everything that he/she tells you to do, and the odds are very much in your favor that things will improve for you as well. Btw, I'm happy to answer any questions that folks might have.