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Back Pain: Finding the Right Doctor


Your back has small joints, linking the vertebrae, that allow you to bend and twist. If the cartilage in these joints is worn down — a result of injury or simply use over time — the bones underneath rub together, causing pain and swelling: spinal arthritis. This generally occurs in the neck (with pain sometimes felt in the shoulder area) or lower back (pain may be in the buttocks or leg).


Arthritis, as well as aging or a herniated disc, can cause growths on the vertebrae called bone spurs, which crowd the space through which the spinal cord and nerves run. This narrowing — stenosis — doesn't always cause problems. But when it does, you might develop chronic back pain, muscle weakness, and, rarely, nerve damage.

What to Ask Before Surgery

If the Surgeon Says "Operate," You Say... Four questions to put to your doctor when the "S" word comes up. Make sure you're totally satisfied with the answers before you leave.

"What would happen if I waited?"

While there are some rare conditions in which surgery is required quickly (your spine has become unstable, for example, or you have neurological complications), usually there's time to give other things a chance to work.

"How can I be sure surgery would be best for my condition?"

You want evidence; ask for statistics and studies. At, you can find reviews of many back procedures, along with a star-rating system that tells you how reliable the studies are.

"What can I try instead?"

A good surgeon should be familiar with other treatments — and comfortable discussing them with you.

"What are the risks?"

If the doctor dismisses possible complications, or doesn't acknowledge that problems may crop up afterward, run (or hobble) to another practitioner.


Originally published on November 12, 2009


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