Spine Surgery

Why would I need spine surgery?

Most people who have back pain will not need surgery. Your spine specialist might recommend surgery if you have a back problem that has not gotten better with another nonoperative treatments, such as medicine or physical therapy. If you still have significant pain, surgery on your spine might fix the problem. Spine surgery cannot fix all types of back problems, though. Your physician will only advise spine surgery if you have a type of problem that surgery may help. This includes conditions such as:

  • Fractured vertebra
  • Herniated disk
  • Infection in the spine
  • Removal of a tumor in the spine
  • Spinal deformities (like scoliosis)
  • Spinal instability
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
  • Spondylolysis (a defect in part of a lower vertebrae)

Depending on the condition and the type of surgery required, some spine surgeries can be done through minimally invasive means. Your surgeon will guide you if minimally invasive surgery may be right for you. Other surgeries, however, may need to be performed through traditional approaches. Depending on the severity of your condition, some surgeries performed by our Washington University spine specialists may need to be done at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in the Central West End.

What are the risks of spine surgery?

  • Blood clots
  • Complications from anesthesia
  • Excess bleeding
  • Infection
  • Leaking of spinal fluid, causing headaches or other problems
  • Nerve damage
  • Not enough pain relief
  • Pain at the surgical site

Your own risks may vary according to your age, your general health and the type of surgery you have. Having the surgery at a hospital that is experienced in the method can lower your risk. Talk to your healthcare provider about your possible risk factors.

What is minimally invasive spine surgery?

Minimally invasive spine surgery (MISS) uses smaller incisions than standard surgery, often resulting in less risk of harm to nearby muscles and other tissues, as well as less pain and faster recovery after surgery.

MISS is done by a spine surgeon and a specially trained medical team. During MISS, the surgeon makes one or more smaller incisions. He or she then inserts specialized retractors to create a tunnel to the problem area of the spine, gently pushing aside the muscle and soft tissue around the area. The surgeon can then put small tools through the tunnel to work on the spine. The surgeon also uses a special operating microscope, high-resolution cameras, computer images and real-time X-rays of the spine.

Surgeons can use MISS for some, but not all, types of spine surgery. These include lumbar or cervical discectomy, laminectomy and spinal fusion.

Get a Free Spine Journey Guide

It is normal to have a lot of questions when considering surgery. Your doctor and surgical care team are committed to your safety every step of the way. The doctors and staff at Washington University and Barnes-Jewish developed this guide to help the patient and their caregiver prepare and know what to expect before, during and after. If you and your physician decide spine surgery will get you back to living a healthy and active life, you can download the Spine Journey Guide.

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