Chronic back pain: when should you consider surgery?

Back pain is one of the top reasons people miss work and end up in their doctor’s office.  The pain can range from dull to debilitating.  But, how do you know when it’s time to consider back surgery.  One former Suwanee math teacher recently faced that question.
Lynda Luckie's back started hurting almost a decade ago, and, gradually, she says, the pain started taking over.  Luckie says she found herself, “Not being able to standup straight. Not being able to stand up or walk for long periods of time. There was numbness in my legs and in my feet."
Wary of surgery, Luckie says she tried physical therapy, chiropractic care, spinal injections for the pain, and radiofrequency ablations.  Nothing helped.  So, a few months ago, she began to reconsider back surgery. She says,  "I knew that surgery was not a guarantee, and I had been told it was 50/50 in terms of is this going to take care of the pain you are having. I just finally decided, if I don't do surgery, there is a zero chance it is going to help."
To stabilize Luckie’s lower spine and stop the pain, Dr. Scott Boden, Director of the Emory Orthopedics and Spine Center, performed a lumbar fusion, one of the most common back surgery procedures.   He says Luckie was a good candidate for spine surgery because her pain wasn't just in her back, it was radiating down her legs.
Dr. Boden says,  "You hear a lot of stories, bad stories, about back surgery.  And, more often than not, those are done for people that just had exclusively back pain and not really leg pain. So it sounds all the same, but it's actually very different."  Boden says if your pain is limited to your back, and is tolerable, it's okay to put off surgery.  But, he says, “If you're starting to get weakness, or dragging your foot, or feeling, going up steps, that you're losing your breath, then it's worth getting an evaluation.  It doesn't mean that you necessarily need surgery.  It's the pain that drives the surgery, and whether it's tolerable or not."
Five months after Luckie’s surgery, she is finally pain-free.  She says, “I’m feeling fantastic.  Just fantastic.

Looking back, yes, it would've been great to do it years ago, but I might not have found the perfect doctor."
Boden says surgical success rates have improved a lot since he became a surgeon 25 years ago.  Still, there is a risk a procedure may not relieve back pain.  If you’re having chronic pain that has spread beyond your back and you’ve tried other non-surgical treatments with little success, talk to your doctor about your options.