Back surgery gone bad: questions to ask your doctor

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Each year, 600,000 Americans undergo spine surgery as part of the $30 billion we spend on back pain care. But before you go under the knife, there are some important questions to ask.

Rick Greenwood thought surgery would relieve his back pain, but it instead left him paralyzed. The 67-year-old developed a blood clot after having a battery-powered stimulator implanted next to his spinal cord.

"My whole focus was getting off pain meds, because it was ruining my life," he told ABC30. "Did we check it maybe as thorough as we needed to on the side effects? No."

Rick and his wife, Debbie, encourage others to ask tough questions before surgery.

"Questions would be more about specifically how many surgeries have you done like this?" Debbie Greenwood said. "What are the guidelines out there for physicians? What happens if something goes wrong?"

A Duke study shows that one in every 100 spinal stimulator patients experience some spinal nerve damage.

"I think people need to be mindful of physicians and surgeons who are well-trained, and to investigate their training," Dr. Stephen Tolhurst, MD, at theTexas Back Institute told ABC30.

The Texas Back Institute, which had nothing to do with Rick's surgery, routinely offers patient advocates for surgery candidates.

"If you don't have a good understanding of your risks and rewards of surgery, then you haven't done enough research," Cheryl Zapata, patient advocate at the institute, told ABC30.

Other questions to ask: is my surgeon board-certified and fellowship-trained? How long has my surgeon been performing this procedure? What is the success rate? Will anyone assist my surgeon and if so, how are they trained? What are the risks? Are there other non-surgical options?

"I'm hoping that this will help people feel more comfortable in researching and asking the questions," Rick said. "You just gotta hang in there."

Rick hopes the right questions will prevent others from suffering like he did.

Other risks of back surgery include a reaction to anesthesia, bleeding, infection, blood clots, nerve damage and a heart attack or stroke.

For more information, contact:

Cheryl Zapata
Texas Back Institute

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