When considering surgery, close consultation with your spine surgeon is imperative. In addition to getting to know your surgeon, his or her experience and areas of expertise, it’s important to ask questions about the procedure itself and if it’s a fit as a solution to your specific problem. Consider these five questions if you’re talking to a spine surgeon.
- What are your surgeon’s skills and qualifications for the procedure you are considering?
Experience allows surgeons to gain familiarity with specific procedures and gives them better background on various scenarios that might come up during surgery.
Ways to gauge experience and qualifications include asking whether your spine surgeon is board-certified or fellowship-trained in spine surgery and how many procedures they have completed. For more involved procedures, fellowship training is generally preferred.
- Have I exhausted all my non-surgical options?
Spine surgery is no small affair and even the most successful surgeries require preparation and often strict recovery protocols. For this and other reasons, most orthopedic surgeons will help you to pursue a variety of non-surgical solutions before rushing into surgery. These may include spinal injections, physical therapy, or other therapies.
Depending on your injury or disease, non-surgical solutions may allow you to maintain more long-term mobility, avoid potential complications from surgery, or enjoy more benefits of surgery at a later time based on changes in your personal health conditions or other circumstances.
Of course, there are some situations where immediate surgery is both recommended and warranted to avoid further damage or relieve severe pain. But even in those situations, you deserve to have all the information you need to make an informed decision with your spine surgeon and your family.
- What is a realistic expected outcome for my personal situation?
Every person is unique. We all know this, but sometimes we forget it when considering other people’s experiences.
Whether you’ve heard about life-changing successes or disappointing outcomes, remember that your story will depend on your specific symptoms, diagnosis, age, level of fitness, other health conditions and surgical options, among other things.
It’s also important to note that the result of some procedures may not last forever and some patients may require repeat or new surgical procedures down the road. Understanding the long-term prognosis post-surgery is essential.
It’s so important to talk to your spine surgeon about your circumstances and your expectations, so that your surgeon can provide helpful and realistic information about what can be expected for your personal outcome.
- How do I prepare for surgery?
This question has numerous elements, from logistical preparation in the days leading up to and the day of surgery, to longer-term planning, such as pre-operative weight loss, smoking cessation, medication adjustments and more.
Be sure to ask your spine surgeon what you need to do (and not do) in the weeks and days leading up to surgery, and what to expect when you come out of the operation room. Will there be an overnight hospital stay? For how long? How quickly can you expect to be up and moving? How much time should you take off from work or school and how much help might you need?
All of these factors can inform your decision on if, and when to have spine surgery.
- What is my post-operative treatment plan?
As with most surgical procedures, the surgery itself is often the first step to recovery. Post-operative physical therapy, rest and possible lifestyle changes often combine to produce the best possible outcome for each patient.
Understanding and being an active participant in your own care plan is essential if you want to maximize the results. This starts with understanding what is required and how to accomplish those requirements in partnership with your spine surgeon, your therapy team and your own support network. And being realistic is again crucial. Ask for an estimated recovery timeframe and how that timeline might change based on your personal circumstances. If you decide to have surgery, ensure you can commit the time and effort to support the recommended recovery plan to maximize your recovery results and minimize the chance of re-injury or complications.
Remember, talking to a spine surgeon doesn’t commit you to surgery. But it does give you an opportunity to understand your options and make a much more informed decision.
Dr. Douglas Crowther is a fellowship-trained orthopedic spine surgeon and a Colorado native. He is a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American Osteopathic Academy of Orthopedics, the North American Spine Society and AO Spine.