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 after the surgery and in the longer term.
Consider the following comprehensive list as a starting point to help guide you in your consultation with the surgeon.
Questions regarding your surgical treatment
This list focusses on your specific surgical procedure that was recommended by the surgeon. These questions will give you an idea of what the procedure will be like and what to expect in the short and long term.
- What type of surgery are you recommending and why?
- What is the source of the pain that is being addressed? How did you confirm this source?
- Please explain the procedure in detail.
The amount of information depends on your personal preference. Some patients want to know everything, others may prefer a brief description.
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- How long will the surgery take?
- Can it be done endoscopically or is an open surgery recommended?
- What are the side effects, potential risks, and potential complications of the surgery?
- Please explain the possible risks that may arise from my state of health and well-being.
Patient-related risk factors like older age, smoking, being overweight, or having grade 3 spondylolisthesis, can affect the surgical outcome.
- 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 perform a small part of the operation while others carry out the entire procedure. If another surgeon is required (such as a vascular surgeon), their role is important, and it would be good to know their qualifications.
- Who else will assist you in the surgery?
- 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 in other levels of the spine?
- What are my nonsurgical options? How long will their effects last?
- What is the natural course of my condition if it is not surgically addressed?
You may want to discuss your previous surgeries, medications, and injuries to make sure this procedure does not adversely affect your health.
Questions regarding your surgeon’s skills and qualifications
It is important to know if your surgeon is knowledgeable and qualified to perform your surgery. This list can help you understand your surgeon’s skills to perform your surgery.
- How many times have you done this procedure?
Experienced surgeons are typically better and would have encountered several types of spinal conditions. They will also have good knowledge of the modifications of different procedures that may be necessary in some cases.
- Are you board-eligible or board-certified?
Surgeons usually display their certificates on the wall.
- Are you fellowship-trained in spine surgery?
Fellowship training is preferable 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 typically be someone not in the same practice.
See How and When to Get a Second Opinion Before Spine Surgery
- Statistically, what is the success rate for this type of surgery? How many surgeries of this type have you done and what is your personal success rate?
- 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 questions and will respect your attention to these matters.
Questions about what to expect after the surgery
Knowledge about the recovery process after your surgery will help you understand your post-surgical phase and set expectations for the functionality of your spine in the future.
- What degree 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 the possible side effects of these prescriptions?
Some meds may cause side effects such as drowsiness or constipation.
- Will you know before the surgery if I will need a back brace afterward? If so, will I be fitted for one before the procedure?
- 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 of 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?
You may have certain movement and/or activity restrictions.
- How long should I wait to bathe?
- How long will I be out of work (or 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: Rehabilitation After Spine Surgery
It is also good to ask relevant questions to your insurance provider regarding the costs that you will be responsible for and if any other payments are anticipated from you.
To make the best use of your time when talking with your surgeon, it may be a good idea to print this list and take it with you to your surgical discussion.
It is important to thoroughly understand your surgical procedure, risks, and benefits. If you decide to get a second opinion, be sure to carry all your medical records so that tests do not need to be repeated. When you are well-informed and confident about your surgeon and surgery, you will likely be more satisfied with your surgical outcome.
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