October 16, 2020

Questions before back surgery


If you find yourself saying, “Oh my nagging back!” … or … “I can’t take this neck pain anymore!”—and more conservative forms of treatment are no longer working—you may want to find a spine specialist nearby to discuss your back or neck surgery options. In order to get the most out of your appointment, why not come prepared with a list of questions? We asked Jessica Shellock, M.D., a board certified orthopedic spine surgeon with the Center for Disc Replacement at Texas Health Center for Diagnostics & Surgery, to share 10 essential questions to help you get started.

Categories:   Back Pain Dr. Jessica Shellock Neck Pain Orthopedics Spine Surgery

Share This Post:

Dr. Shellock recommends asking questions about the treatment options, with a focus on finding out which option is a good fit for you.



Question 1: What type of procedure do you recommend for my spine condition and why?

OK, this should be a no-brainer but the point here is that it’s important to take time to discuss the actual procedure, what’s involved and why the surgeon is recommending this procedure for your unique back or neck condition. (If you don’t have a clear understanding about your condition, take time to clarify that, too.)

Question 2: What are the potential risks and complications of this procedure?

According to Dr. Shellock, “Along with thoroughly explaining the recommended procedure, the surgeon should also cover any potential risks, complications, and benefits to the procedure. This is all part of the informed consent process. You need to understand what you are consenting to!”

Question 3: Are there any long-term consequences which could occur following this procedure?

While long-term issues should be addressed when discussing risks, patients considering spinal fusion surgery often ask Dr. Shellock this question. As she explains, “Many times when discussing fusion surgery, patients have questions about whether they will lose flexibility or whether they will need additional surgery in the future.  All of this should be discussed and addressed when you meet with the surgeon.”

Question 4: What can I expect if I DON’T have this procedure?

Depending on the procedure in question—and your unique back or neck condition—NOT having the procedure could result in your condition getting worse, staying the same or it might even improve. Dr. Shellock believes it’s important to find out what to expect either way, so you can make an educated decision regarding whether to proceed with surgery or consider other options.

Question 5: What can I expect post-operatively in regard to recovery and rehabilitation (e.g., pain/discomfort, physical therapy, time away from work, time to return to full activity, etc.)?

Discussing post-op expectations should be part of the pre-op discussion with your surgeon. Many procedures require post-op restrictions that could have a big impact on your day-to-day life, so it’s important to be prepared.

According to Dr. Shellock, “Following surgery, you may need to be off work for a period of time, so that needs to be addressed well before the day of your procedure. I also think it’s best for my patients to hear multiple times throughout the clinic and pre-op visits what to expect regarding pain after the procedure and to understand that surgery doesn’t always result in all pre-op pain going away completely. Setting appropriate expectations is paramount to having a happy patient after a surgery!”

Don’t forget to ask about alternatives to back or neck surgery …

Question 6: What other options do I have to treat my back or neck condition?

Dr. Shellock believes it’s important for surgeons to discuss all possible alternatives to surgery when they meet with a patient. Don’t be afraid to press the surgeon if you don’t feel all of the options have been covered to your satisfaction.

“Generally, patients will have already tried some type of conservative treatment (e.g., physical therapy, chiropractic care, injections) if they are being offered surgery, but sometimes the extent of these options hasn't been fully explored. Obviously, there will be times when the surgeon feels like additional conservative care and extending time until surgery isn't necessarily in the patient's best interest. If that’s the situation in your case, the surgeon should explain that to you,” Dr. Shellock says. 

It’s also a good idea to ask questions about the surgeon and his or her experience.

Question 7: Are you fellowship trained?

Along with medical school and residency, doctors also have the option to undergo an additional year of specialized training known as a fellowship. During that time, they typically focus on a specific body part (e.g., spine). During a spine fellowship the surgeon gets more exposure to conditions and treatments related to the spine like degenerative disc disease, neck vs. lower back, complex spine revisions, artificial disc replacement, spine tumors, scoliosis, etc.

Says Dr. Shellock, “It is pretty much universal that most spine surgeons have completed a formal fellowship in spine training outside of their residency training. Finding out if they specialize in your type of procedure can help put your mind at ease and make you feel more confident that the surgeon is right for you.”

Question 8: How many times have you performed this procedure on patients like me?

While the surgeon may not be able to give you an exact number, he or she should be able to give you general idea. “This is a frequent question that I get asked. I think every patient wants to feel reassured that the surgical procedure is something the surgeon has performed many times, and they should,” Dr. Shellock says.

Learning about the surgeon’s support team and where your procedure will be performed can also be helpful.

Question 9: Where will my spine surgery be performed?

While location can be important from a convenience perspective, different types of facilities—hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs)—offer varied services and fee structures.

According to Dr. Shellock, “It’s a good idea to find out where your surgery is going to be performed—hospital setting or ambulatory setting. There could be a difference in payments depending on the setting, and you don’t want any surprises when it comes to cost for the surgery. Your patient navigator can help you take a deeper dive into some of these questions.”

Question 10: Does your support team specialize in spine procedures?

Finding out whether the surgeon’s support staff also routinely works with spine patients is key. The more they work with patients like you, the better equipped they will be to address your spine specific needs.

“In the facility where we do many of our surgical procedures, we bring in a physical therapist from our own PT department to see the patient after their procedure to go over some basic exercises and restrictions prior to going home. We also have nursing staff that is comfortable treating spine patients and understanding their particular needs and concerns,” says Dr. Shellock.

The most important question is the one you ask yourself …

“Do I feel confident that this surgeon is right for me?”

When searching for a spine surgeon, Dr. Shellock thinks it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion. However, she believes confidence in the surgeon is most important.

As Dr. Shellock explains, “Every patient is going to have a different comfort level coming to a decision about surgery, and for some patients, that comfort will be increased by getting another opinion. Ultimately, it’s important that you feel confident in your treating surgeon and also feel educated about what you are being offered and why.”

If you need help finding a spine specialist in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Texas Health Center for Diagnostics & Surgery is here to help. Contact us at 972-543-1250 to start your search today.