Back surgery is a patient’s major life decision and should only be made after exhausting conservative treatments, and then selecting a back surgery surgeon with care.

Every patient should engage in proper and thorough investigation of both the type of proposed surgery and the surgeon before making any decision.  Here are some general guidelines one may start with.

1. Ask the surgeon, respectfully but directly, about the surgeon’s qualifications and experience with the spine surgery you are considering

How many times have you done this procedure? Find out if this is appropriate (not too many, not too few) for a surgeon who makes his living doing this type of surgery.

Are you board certified?

Are you fellowship trained in spine surgery?

Who would you recommend for a second opinion?

What is the success rate for this type of surgery?

Any defensiveness on the part of the surgeon when you ask these types of questions may be a red flag.  A well-qualified, informed physician does not mind a reasonably inquisitive patient.

2. Verify your surgeon’s skills and expertise

There are governmental websites in most states that document malpractice and professional discipline against doctors.  If you know someone who works at the hospital of the proposed surgery, ask them to speak with OR nurses about who they would go to for surgery.

You can ask the surgeon for references, but the better approach may be to ask your referring physician for names of patients who used the surgeon in question.

3.  Possible Red flags

A surgeon who claims “everyone does well with this surgery.”  There is no surgery that does not have risks and bad outcomes.

A surgeon who primarily does a different surgery than the one in question.

The surgeon cannot clearly explain the anatomic problem that is causing your pain and how he proposes to correct it.

A good surgeon should be easily able to articulate not only the specific risks of a procedure but also the percentage chance of that specific risk.

Be very skeptical of a proposal to do a multilevel fusion in the lumbar spine for degenerative disc disease.

The surgeon immediately offers surgery without having you exhaust non-surgical treatment options.

The most common reason a surgery does not work is that the patient was not an appropriate candidate in the first place. If a surgeon proposes doing a surgery all over again, it may signify a problem.

4. Realize the second opinion is not always the best opinion.

Second opinions are good to get; but realize that the second opinion about back surgery is not necessarily better or more valid than a first or third opinion.