Back Surgery Gone Bad: Questions to Ask Your Doc


Each year, 600,000 Americans undergo spine surgery as part of the 30 billion dollars we spend on back pain care. But before you go under the knife, there are some important questions to ask.

Rick Greenwood thought surgery would relieve his back pain, but it instead left him paralyzed. The 67-year-old developed a blood clot after having a battery-powered stimulator implanted next to his spinal cord.

 "My whole focus was getting off pain meds, cause it was ruining my life," he told Ivanhoe. "Did we check it maybe as thorough as we needed to on the side effects. No."

Rick and his wife Debbie encourage others to ask tough questions before surgery.

"Questions would be more about specifically how many surgeries have you done like this?" Debbie Greenwood said. " What are the guidelines out there for physicians? What happens if something goes wrong?" 

A Duke study shows that one in every 100 spinal stimulator patients experience some spinal nerve damage. 

"I think people need to be mindful of physicians and surgeons who are well-trained, and to investigate their training," Dr. Stephen Tolhurst, MD, at the Texas Back Institute told Ivanhoe.

The Texas Back Institute, which had nothing to do with Rick's surgery, routinely offers patient advocates for surgery candidates.

"If you don't have a good understanding of your risks and rewards of surgery then you haven't done enough research," Cheryl Zapata, patient advocate at the institute, told Ivanhoe.

Other questions to ask: is my surgeon board-certified and fellowship-trained? How long has my surgeon been performing this procedure? What is the success rate? Will anyone assist my surgeon and if so, how are they trained? What are the risks? Are there other non-surgical options?

"I'm hoping that this will help people feel more comfortable in researching and asking the questions," Rick said. "You just gotta hang in there."

Rick hopes the right questions will prevent others from suffering like he did.

Other risks of back surgery include a reaction to anesthesia, bleeding, infection, blood clots, nerve damage and a heart attack or stroke. 

BACKGROUND: Chronic pain is a hard condition to treat. While sometimes doctors are able to pin-point a reason for the pain, other times, doctors are unable to find the cause. These patients are usually sent home with tips for managing the pain without ever truly solving the problem. Chronic back pain is one condition that can fall in this category. Chronic back pain can occur in the neck, upper back, lower back, or tailbone. The pain can be intermittent or constant. It can stay in one place or radiate to other places in the back. The pain can be sharp, aching, or burning sensations. The emotional toll of the pain can make the condition even more debilitating. Exercise may help relieve pain in the lower back. Some with back pain also say acupuncture helps relieve the pain. (Sources: http://www.spine-health.com/treatment/pain-management/pain-management-chronic-back-pain, http://www.webmd.com/back-pain/living-with-chronic-pain, http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/c/chronic_back_pain/intro.htm)

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Some chronic back pain sufferers are looking to electric stimulators to relieve pain. A small device is implanted in the back and sends electric pulses to the spinal cord. These generated signals interfere with the pain signals sent from other nerves. Doctors say it essentially distracts the spinal cord. It's busy processing the device-generated signal from the device, so the intensity of the pain signal decreases. 50,000 spinal cord stimulator devices are implanted each year, according to Medtronic, a company that produces these stimulators. The stimulators cost between $20,000 and $60,000. (Sources: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304512504579493843647492538, http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/news/20100510/electrical-stimulation-may-ease-back-pain?page=2)

RISKS:  As with any surgery, there are risks associated. After having the surgery, Rick Greenwood is familiar with the risks and now wishes he had asked more about them and the qualifications of his surgeon. Greenwood, now paralyzed from the waist down, was one of the estimated 100 people who have experienced partial or permanent damage as a result of the surgery. He advises that anyone going into surgery fully investigate the risks associated:

·         Reaction to anesthesia

·         Bleeding

·         Infection

·         Blood clots

·         Heart attack & stroke

·         Nerve damage

(Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304512504579493843647492538)

* For More Information, Contact:

Cheryl Zapata

Texas Back Institute