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When Is Low Back Surgery Appropriate?

When Is Low Back Surgery Appropriate?
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Low back pain is the most common musculoskeletal complaint, and it is the leading cause of activity limitation and absenteeism from work. There are many treatment options available to the low back pain patient, including surgical procedures. But when is surgery appropriate and in what cases should it be avoided?

Generally, clinical guidelines don’t recommend surgery as an initial treatment, except in emergency or critical situations. For example, when a patient presents for chiropractic care, there are red flags that indicate the patient should be referred out to another healthcare provider, if not the emergency room. These include cancer, fracture with instability, infection, and cauda equina syndrome (includes loss of bowel and/or bladder control). In these cases, surgery may be the best available option for the patient to avoid a catastrophic outcome.

In addition to these red flag scenarios, a literature review published in 2023 in the Medical Journal of Australia concluded that spinal surgery may have a role in the management of non-responsive nerve compression with radiating leg pain. That is, once conservative, non-surgical options have failed. However, outside of these situations, the review concluded, “Spinal surgery for all other forms of back pain is unsupported by clinical data, and the broader evidence base for spinal surgery in the management of LBP is poor and suggests it is ineffective.” Additionally, the authors note that spinal surgery for LBP “has substantially increased over recent decades, and disproportionately among privately insured patients, thus the contribution of industry and third-party payers to this increase, and their involvement in published research, requires careful consideration.”

Unfortunately, a 2022 study found that 41.7% of low back pain patients who underwent spinal surgery had minimal, if any, engagement with non-pharmacological, non-operative treatment in the six months before their procedure. A 2013 study that used data from Washington state worker’s compensation system found that 43% of workers with a back injury who initially consulted with a surgeon ended up having surgery while just 1.5% of those who first received chiropractic treatment eventually had a surgical procedure for their back pain. Not only are patients who visit a chiropractor first less likely to end up under the surgeon’s knife but they’re also less likely to be prescribed opioids within the following year, something that offers tremendous benefits to society in light of the opioid crisis.

If you experience an episode of low back pain, consider chiropractic care as your first treatment choice. If your condition doesn’t respond to a multimodal treatment approach, your chiropractor can refer you to an allied healthcare provider for additional care.


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