Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Back Pain Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

The Truth About Back Surgery


WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Toni Gerber Hope & Susan Ince
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo
Of the 56 million Americans who have back pain, only 5 percent need surgery. Here's how to protect yourself and find relief that really works.

 

There's an old joke in medicine: A man goes to the doctor because he has a miserable cold. His doctor prescribes some pills, but they don't help. On his next visit, the doctor gives him a shot, but that doesn't do any good, either. On the third visit, the doctor advises, "Go home and take a hot bath. As soon as you finish bathing, throw open all the windows and stand in the draft."

"But Doc," protests the patient, "if I do that, I'll get pneumonia."

"I know," says the doctor. "I can cure that."

If you have back pain, you may feel like the guy with the cold. Your doctor gives you one pill, then another kind, then a third. Maybe he sends you for a shot. Or he advises cold, or heat, or alternating cold and heat. And then it may be on to X-rays or scans. It's a scattershot approach based on often thin, even contradictory, evidence of what actually helps.

And it has made bad backs big business. Americans spend nearly $86 billion a year on their aching backs, which is just about on par with the outlay for cancer treatment. Yet for all those dollars — doled out at doctors' offices and hospitals, and for medications, manipulations, and pain-relief products to use at home — there has been no improvement in how patients fare overall, say researchers in a University of Washington study that compared reports from 1997 through 2005. In fact, today a larger proportion remain impaired by their back troubles. "The truth is, we may have oversold what we have to offer," says Richard A. Deyo, M.D., professor of evidence-based family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. "We're using tests and treatments more widely than the science really supports."

A pill or heat belt that doesn't relieve pain is one thing. But what if you undergo surgery, spend months in rehabilitation, and still feel no better? That's what happened to Catherine Johnson, 50, a onetime competitive figure skater who is "not the sedentary type," she says. Johnson, the mom of an 18-year-old daughter, has owned four businesses and was active in her New Hampshire community. But for seven years, her life revolved largely around pain from a slipped disc in her back. She'd tried just about everything, but was still miserable: "My friends were sick of hearing me say, 'I can't do that because of my back.' And I was sick of saying it."

So in 2004, Johnson underwent surgery to repair the disc. She'd had a similar operation 10 years before and thought this one would be just as helpful. It wasn't. She was still in a lot of pain, still telling friends she couldn't do things. Three years later, in 2007, Johnson was injured further when a drunk driver slammed into her car. Afterward, she suffered muscle spasms and flares of pain so intense she often had to go to the emergency room for heavy-duty drugs. Finally, a new doctor referred her to the Spine Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH. After 14 full days in the functional restoration program, doing intensive physical therapy and learning psychological techniques for managing pain, she found relief. In fact, the turnaround was so great that in September Johnson moved to California, where she hopes to get back to coaching skaters. "It's what I love most," she says.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Today on WebMD

back pain myths slideshow
Slideshow
woman with lower back pain
Quiz
 
man on cellphone
Slideshow
acupuncture needles in woman's back
Slideshow
 

woman stretching to touch toes
Article
pain in brain and nerves
Slideshow
 
Chronic Pain Healtcheck
Health Check
break at desk
Article
 
Chiropractors in Your Area

Woman holding lower back
Slideshow
Weight Loss Surgery
Slideshow
 
lumbar spine
Slideshow
back pain
Article