If you've ever had back pain, you’re not alone; eight in 10 Americans will experience this discomfort at some point in their lives. Often, the pain subsides on its own, but in rare cases, surgery is the only hope for relief.
Fortunately, back surgery isn't as scary as it sounds, and newer techniques, including minimally invasive spine surgery, can be done using small incisions that help reduce recovery time.
"It's not your mother's spine surgery," says Michael Madsen, MD, a neurologist and orthopedic surgeon with Sky Ridge Medical Center in Colorado.
Not sure what minimally invasive spine surgery entails? Here are your top questions, answered.
What is minimally invasive surgery?
Minimally invasive procedures can be performed on a number of body parts, but most are done using one or more small incisions, rather than the large incisions associated with open surgeries.
"Compared to open surgeries, minimally invasive surgeries typically involve less soft tissue damage and smaller incisions, leading to a quicker recovery,” says Madsen.
What are the types of spine surgery?
When it comes to operating on the spine, procedures vary based on what needs to be treated, but three main types are:
- Spinal fusion
Who really needs spine surgery?
Surgery is rarely necessary, and most pain will go away spontaneously or can be managed with nonsurgical measures, like medication, heat or physical therapy. If these interventions fail, and debilitating pain persists, it’s a good idea to chat with your doctor about next steps.
There are a number of back problems that can be treated with surgery, including instability, pinched nerves or injured spinal disks. Surgery most successfully relieves back problems that cause pain or numbness to radiate to your arms or legs.
What’s the outlook for recovery?
Although length of recovery will vary between patients, most people who elect minimally invasive surgeries can expect a hospital stay of one or two days, compared with three-to-five days for an open surgery. Those with the most minor procedures may even return home the same day.
Patients should expect some pain following surgery, which can typically be managed with physician-prescribed medication. You can also ask your healthcare provider about taking over-the-counter medications to help relieve discomfort.
Physical therapy may be recommended to help strengthen the muscle around the spine and speed recovery. Your doctor will schedule follow-up appointments to check on your recovery, but don’t hesitate to reach out with any concerns. Call your doctor immediately if you experience:
- Severe pain
- Trouble breathing
- Increase in fluid leaking from incision
- Signs of infection, like redness, tenderness or swelling around incision
- Extreme headache
- Blood clot signs, like a swollen calf, ankle or foot or redness or tenderness in the leg
What are the benefits?
The benefits of minimally invasive back surgery include:
- Your procedure may use local anesthesia, which decreases the risk of adverse reactions to a general anesthetic.
- Cosmetically, incision sites start at about two centimeters in length, rather than several inches.
- There may be less post-operative pain than with a more involved procedure.
More research is needed to compare the effectiveness of minimally invasive procedures to open surgeries and nonsurgical interventions. But, Madsen notes, "when the appropriate minimally invasive techniques are chosen for the appropriate situations, there are virtually no drawbacks."
As with any surgery, there is always the possibility that not everything will go according to plan. Potential surgery-related complications include:
- Adverse or allergic reactions to anesthesia
- Blood loss
- Nerve damage
- Blood clots
- Persistent pain
"We think the risks may be lower with minimally invasive surgeries, because incisions are smaller," Madsen says. "We also believe infection risks are lower, and because hospitalizations tend to be shorter, we think that hospital-acquired complications are also lower."
To further minimize risks, Madsen suggests taking a few important steps prior to surgery. Maintaining a healthy weight, getting diabetes under control and quitting smoking are all positive pre-surgery goals. Depending on the severity of your back condition, physical therapy may also be prescribed to build strength and increase mobility before surgery.
It’s important to recognize that not everyone who experiences back pain or injury will need surgery, and not all procedures can be performed with less invasive techniques. Speak with your healthcare provider about whether one of these pain-relieving procedures may be right for you.