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Failed back surgery syndrome, an overview

Failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) is one of the worst things that can happen to someone suffering from neck or back pain. After living with debilitating symptoms for years and going through round after round of conservative treatment, it can be devastating to go through open back surgery only to have symptoms return.

Failed back surgery syndrome is not a completely accurate term because it doesn’t describe an actual syndrome. Instead, it’s a catch-all for the continuation of symptoms, or the development of new pain, that surgery was supposed to relieve. This can happen for many different reasons and sometimes the specific cause can be unclear to doctors.

If you have undergone back surgery and suspect your ongoing symptoms might be related to FBSS — or if you are considering surgery the first time — it is important to research this condition thoroughly. There are spine specialists in the Scottsdale area who can offer treatment for failed back surgery syndrome, but before making an appointment, it can be good to gather general information so you can ask the right questions.

How to know if you have FBSS

Just because you experience neck or back pain after undergoing back surgery doesn’t necessarily mean you have failed back surgery syndrome.

For one, traditional open spine surgery is a highly invasive process involving a large incision that cuts through supporting muscles. This requires a long, often painful, recovery period while the incision and muscles heal and it is easy to mistake this pain for FBSS symptoms. There is also the chance that the new symptoms really are from a separate condition that is unrelated to the surgery.

Generally, pain from failed back surgery syndrome is going to be in the same region as the where the surgery was performed and could consist of many of the same symptoms. Here are some of the most commonly reported symptoms from sufferers if FBSS:

  • Sharp or burning pain
  • Tingling or numbness in the extremities
  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle weakness
  • Limited mobility
  • Increased use of pain medication

What are some of the suspected causes?

Since failed back surgery syndrome does not describe one particular condition but instead an entire range of factors, the causes can vary on almost a case-by-case basis. However, there are a number of frequent contributors that doctors and patients report. These include:

  • Misdiagnosed condition — Many spine conditions, like herniated discs and bone spurs, don’t usually cause symptoms unless they are compressing a nerve. It is possible for a surgeon to see one of these conditions and think it is the root cause of a patient’s symptoms. Before undergoing a procedure it is critical to confirm that a particular condition is the actual cause of pain.
  • Surgical error — Another possibility is that the surgeon did not completely remove the excess tissue that was putting pressure on the nerve. Even a smaller portion of disc material or bone spur can cause symptoms to continue after surgery.
  • Nerve damage — There is some amount of nerve inflammation involved with decompressing nerves during a procedure, but in rare cases surgery can lead to nerve damage that leads to lasting symptoms.
  • Improper rehabilitation — Even a successfully diagnosed and performed procedure requires proper rehabilitation for a patient to be able to return to normal activity and experience symptom relief. If the patient does not follow instructions carefully or does not complete the recommended course of rehabilitation, the spine may not be able to heal properly and symptoms can persist. It is also important to undergo rehabilitation and physical therapy with a licensed professional who is experienced with the recovery process from back surgery.

Treating failed back surgery syndrome

If you believe that your continued pain and limited mobility is related to a failed back surgery you should consult with your primary care doctor or the specialist who performed the procedure. It is generally recommended to first treat symptoms with conservative options like pain medication, periods of rest, hot and cold compression and light stretching. Physical therapy or continuation of postsurgical rehabilitation can also help with symptoms and mobility.

Many patients potentially suffering from FBSS will also begin to consider alternative treatments like acupuncture, yoga and meditation. Mental health counseling can also be an effective source of relief for patients dealing with the depression and anxiety that can come from this condition. Always partner with your doctor when pursuing alternative treatments.

Should you undergo surgery again?

The decision to elect for open back surgery is usually difficult the first time, so deciding whether or not to attempt another procedure to fix a failed one can be even harder. Most doctors and specialists will strongly recommend exhausting conservative options before considering another surgery.

If this is your situation, reach out to Laser Spine Institute. At our outpatient center in Scottsdale, we perform minimally invasive decompression, and in severe cases, minimally invasive stabilization, surgery for the spine that is a minimally invasive alternative to traditional open back surgery. Many patients dealing with FBSS seek us out because our procedures use smaller muscle-sparing incisions to access the spine. This means a shorter recovery time and less surgical risk than traditional procedures.^

Our caring team of professionals takes a patient-centered approach that makes your health and comfort the focus of what we do. To learn more about becoming a potential candidate, contact us today for a no-cost MRI review.*