Spinal surgery: myths and misconceptions explained

Spinal surgery can sound intimidating and there are a lot of common misconceptions surrounding it. In fact, spinal surgery can refer to a variety of different procedures, all with different purposes and recovery times. Here are the most common myths and misconceptions we hear from patients about spinal surgery and the reality explained:

Myth 1: All spine surgeries are major surgeries

The spine is a large, complex part of your body and therefore no spinal surgery can be thought of as simple. Surgery is only ever considered after all other treatment routes have been exhausted. However, this doesn't mean that every spinal surgery needs an extended stay in hospital. In fact, around three-quarters of spinal surgeries are considered non-major and often only need one night in hospital after having a general anaesthetic.

Myth 2: Recovery from spinal surgery is always long and painful

People often fear that if they have surgery on their spine they will be in pain and unable to move for a long time afterwards. In many cases, you can move around again soon after surgery and your pain should be minimal after the first few days, as well as being controlled with over-the-counter painkillers. Your recovery time will depend on a number of factors, such as the type of surgery you are having, your age, and your general health. Recovery from a discectomy, for example, where some or all of a spinal disc is removed, can take as little as two weeks. 

In many cases, you’ll only need to spend one night in hospital after spinal surgery. For more involved surgeries, you often only need to stay for up to four nights. You will have a general anaesthetic while the surgery is being performed and afterwards you will be offered painkillers as necessary. Once you’re back home and recovering, the amount of time before you can resume work and normal activities will depend on the type of work you do and the type of surgery you had. 

The aim of back surgery is to reduce pain and discomfort and hopefully improve your mobility. Successful surgery can leave you feeling much better in a relatively short period of time. Your surgeon and aftercare team will make sure you are aware of your post-surgery outlook beforehand. 

Myth 3: You have to stay inactive after spinal surgery

Once upon a time, recovery from back surgery meant limiting your movement as much as possible. But times have moved on, with advances in techniques, which mean this is no longer the case. You will likely be encouraged to walk around soon after your surgery and you’ll see a physiotherapist who will give you exercises to do at home. Physiotherapy and exercise are an important part of recovery from surgery and will strengthen your muscles. 

Exercise should help you to build up your strength gradually until you are as active, if not more so than you were before surgery. However, it is still important to take enough time off work for your recovery — even if you have a desk job. 

Myth 4: Pain equals damage

While recovering from surgery you’ll need to be careful about how much activity you do but it’s normal to feel some discomfort. Pain doesn’t always mean you’ve done damage to your body; if you’ve just had surgery then parts of your body will feel more sensitive than usual. The exercises you are given may feel uncomfortable at first and you may get tired quickly but your recovery will go much smoother and faster if you follow the personalised recovery plan your physiotherapist gives you. 

Your pain should become more manageable as you begin to recover from surgery. If you’re still having severe pain after a few days, especially if you also have a fever or any numbness, contact your aftercare team urgently to have it checked out. 

Myth 5: A back doctor will always recommend surgery

Although surgery is much less invasive than it used to be, a specialist will always explore other avenues of treatment before recommending surgery. In many cases, there are a number of non-surgical treatment options that can be tried first, including physiotherapy and targeted injections

Some people believe that if they have a herniated disc, where one of the fluid-filled discs that sit between the bones (vertebrae) in your back bulges out, they will definitely need surgery. While in some cases surgery is the best treatment option for this condition, most of the time it can be treated with painkillers, physiotherapy and gentle exercise. 

If you’re experiencing back pain, make sure you speak to a doctor to explore your options and find the most appropriate treatment for you, whether it’s spinal surgery or not.