38 Questions to Ask Your Surgeon Before Having Back Surgery

Stephanie Burke of Spine-Health compiled this comprehensive list of questions that I think is a very important checklist when discussing surgical options. Take these with you on your next consultation:

Questions before you decide to have the surgery

  1. What type of surgery are you recommending? Why?
  2. What is the source of the painthat is being addressed? How do you know this? (Exploratory back surgery is not done).
  3. Please explain the procedure – at a very high level/with some detail/in great detail.
  4. What are my non-surgical options?
  5. What is the natural course of my condition if it is not surgically addressed?
  6. What would you recommend if this were your friend/wife/sister/daughter etc…?
  7. How long will the surgery take?
  8. What are side effects, potential risks and complications?
  9. Please explain the risks and how they relate to me personally. For example, chances of having a non fusion if you are overweight, a smoker, risks if have a grade 3 spondy, etc.
  10. What if you get in there and see something different than you expected?
  11. Do I need to donate my own blood? If yes, why? For most types of back surgery, blood does not need to be donated ahead of time.
  12. Do you perform the whole procedure? Will any students/other surgeons be doing any parts of the operation? If yes, who are they and what are their qualifications? Some surgeons only do a small part of the operation, others do the whole thing. If another surgeon is required, e.g. a vascular surgeon, their role is important and it would be good to know their qualifications..
  13. Who else will assist you in the operation? What is their background and qualifications?
  14. What are the long-term consequences of the proposed procedure? E.g. will the operation ever need to be re-done? If it is a fusion, will it lead to degeneration at other levels of the spine?)

Questions about the surgeon

  1. How many times have you done this procedure? In general, when it comes to surgery “practice makes perfect”, so more is better. (However, if the doctor is recommending something that is not often done, such as multi-level fusions, more would not necessarily be better.)
  2. Are you board eligible or board certified? You can usually look on the wall and see a certificate.
  3. Are you fellowship trained in spine surgery? This is more important if the surgery is a fusion, artificial disc replacement, or other more extensive procedure.
  4. If I want to get a second opinion, who would you recommend? (Someone not in the same practice)
  5. Statistically the success rate for this type of surgery is _%. What is your personal success rate, and how many of this type of surgery have you done?
  6. Can I talk to other patients who have had a similar procedure?

Any defensiveness on the part of the surgeon when you ask these types of questions may be a red flag. A surgeon with good results and appropriate qualifications will not be threatened by these types of questions and will respect your attention to these matters.

Questions about what to expect after the surgery

  1. What kind of pain should I expect after the surgery and for how long?
  2. How long is the hospital stay?
  3. May a family member spend the night with me in the hospital?
  4. How do you manage the pain in the hospital?
  5. Which pain medications will I be sent home with? What are possible side effects of these prescriptions? E.g. Constipation, drowsiness, etc.
  6. Will you know before the surgery if I will need a backbrace afterwards? If so, will I be fitted for one before the surgery?
  7. Who can I call if I have questions after the surgery? What is the process for communication?
  8. How often will I see you after my surgery?
  9. What symptoms would warrant a call to your office?
  10. What symptoms would warrant immediate medical attention?
  11. What limitations will I have after surgery and for how long?
  12. How long will I be out of work? School? Whatever…
  13. What kind of help will I need when I return home?
  14. When can I drive again?
  15. When can I resume normal (light) household chores?
  16. What expectations do you have for my recovery?
  17. When is it safe for my spouse and I to have sexual relations again?
  18. How soon after the surgery can I start physical therapy?

Good luck with your decision and your recovery!

Mudit Sharma, MD, FAANS,                                                                                                  Founder, Virginia Spine Specialists