There’s an old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That is, we use the tools we have to solve problems, even if they’re not the best fit.
If you go to a surgeon, likely two things are true: your health issue seems intractable and the surgeon is going to prescribe surgery to fix it. For a torn ACL, that’s understandable and probably the right diagnosis. Nothing else is going to fix a torn ACL and knee surgery has a high degree of success.
Back pain is another story. There often is an alternative – an integrated approach that includes chiropractic, physical therapy, massage and other modalities. Even when surgery appears to be the only choice it is often a poor one. It’s estimated that 50-75% of back surgeries simply don’t yield much relief. Steve Kerr, coach of the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors said after his own failed procedure, “Stay away from back surgery.”
Beyond that, there are risks to surgical interventions that patients often overlook. After all, the patient is put to sleep while the body is cut open and exposed to infection; instruments are being inserted into the cavity; internal parts are cut and manipulated; and foreign substances may be introduced into the body. Even after surgery, rehab can be long, painful and introduce complications of their own.
Surgery should be considered an absolute last option when it comes to back issues. Consider some of the very real risks of surgery:
Risks from anesthesia
Anesthesia is generally safe, but if a mistake is made, or a patient has a reaction to the drugs administered, the risks are serious and even potentially fatal. Among the negative results have been heart attacks, strokes, brain damage and death.
Surgeons are humans and can make mistakes. They can cut a major blood vessel and cause internal bleeding. They can nick the dural covering of the spinal cord, a potentially dangerous mistake that occurs in about one percent of spinal surgeries. If the tear isn’t noticed right away, spinal fluid can leak out through the tear and cause serious complications.
Intact skin is the first defense against infection. Surgery breaks the skin and exposes patients to infection, which occurs in another one percent of cases. Additionally, about four percent of hospital patients acquire infection from their hospital stay. This affects almost three-quarters of a million people, roughly 75,000 of whom lose their lives as a result.
The body’s blood clotting system goes into overdrive in reaction to being cut. Clots can form in veins, generally in the lower extremities and meander up into the lungs causing a potentially fatal embolism.
Sometimes surgery cures the problem. Sometimes it doesn’t work very well at all. In the case of spinal surgery, sometimes it makes the pain worse. Even a surgeon will warn his or her patients that they may or may not experience relief after the surgery.
Other less common risks
In spinal fusion surgery, the fusion can simply fail to heal, leaving the bones unfused. The simple act of moving around can cause the implants to break and require a second surgery. A fusion cage that holds the disc in place may “migrate,” or move out of place as your back bends and twists as part of everyday life. Metal screws, plates and rods inserted into the back may also loosen or break. These issues are fairly uncommon, but very scary.
Taken as a whole, the risks of spinal surgery are not negligible and can even lead to death. Given that spinal surgery has a poor track record of success, it just makes sense to seek out alternatives first. Almost everyone who has jumped right to surgery would have been better served by at least trying chiropractic care first.