Do You Need Surgery For Your Back Pain?

Do You Need Surgery For Your Back Pain?

Back pain is everywhere. It’s so common that eight in ten adults will have back pain at some point in their lives. 13 million Americans visit a doctor for chronic back pain every year. If your pain is bad enough, you might even start to wonder if you need surgery. But do you?

The truth is that most patients do not need spine surgery for their back pain. If your doctor is recommending spine surgery but you haven’t tried nonsurgical treatments first, you should get a second opinion.


If your doctor is recommending spine surgery, ask yourself these key questions:

  1. Did your doctor recommend surgery the first time you saw her? Or instead, did your doctor recommend nonsurgical treatments first? Early treatments for back pain should always be nonsurgical.
  2. Did your doctor ask what treatments you’ve tried in the past, and if they worked? If your doctor hasn’t discussed your treatment history, you should get a second opinion.

It’s even more important to get a second opinion if the surgery is:

  • risky,
  • very expensive,
  • or invasive.

Second opinions are also valuable if you have a very complex problem.


Some patients wonder if a doctor’s field of specialty will affect their treatment recommendations. Is it better to visit an orthopedic surgeon or a neurosurgeon, for example?

The reality is that doctors in both of these fields train together. Neurosurgeons are trained by orthopedic surgeons, and vice versa. If you think you might benefit from spine surgery, it’s more important to find a doctor who will discuss your treatment history and ways you can manage your pain without surgery first.


Just five percent of back problems end up leading to surgery. Many patients assume they need surgery. When patients go to a surgeon whose first reaction is to operate, they don’t question the surgeon’s recommendation.

Whether you are a candidate for spine surgery depends on many factors:


Back pain is considered chronic if it lasts longer than three months. Acute pain lasts less than three months.

If you have new onset back pain, you and your doctor shouldn’t consider surgery as an option. During onset back pain, your pain is acute and you can usually remember what you were doing when your back pain started, like skiing or lifting heavy boxes.

Luckily, most back (or spine) pain goes away on its own. But even if your pain lasts longer than three months, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need surgery.


Many patients think they must need surgery because their pain is so bad. But whether you need surgery actually isn’t related to how much pain you have. Many factors help doctors determine whether surgery may help your back pain. Some of these factors include what treatments you’ve tried in the past and if they’ve reduced your pain level.

If you can tolerate your pain and it doesn’t interfere with your daily life, you probably don’t need surgery.


Most types of back pain can—and should—be managed without surgery. Nonsurgical (also called conservative) treatments include:

  • stretching,
  • heating pads,
  • anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen,
  • or changing your physical activity.

A skilled spine specialist will work with you over time to try a series of treatments that don’t include surgery. These treatments may include prescription medications, physical therapy, or even increasing your physical activity level.

According to the National Institutes of Health, people who are inactive have back pain more often. Weak back and stomach muscles may not give your spine the support it needs.


At the end of the day, it’s important to find a doctor who will educate you about potential risks and benefits of the surgery, and why they are recommending it. Be sure to find a doctor who will teach you about their decision-making behind your problem.

If your doctor has recommended spine surgery but you aren’t fully comfortable with your doctor’s recommendation, or if you haven’t tried other treatments, schedule an evaluation in our spine second opinion program.