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Physical Therapy Versus Back Surgery — What’s Right for You?


If you’re dealing with chronic back pain due to a spine condition, it is important to keep a positive attitude about treatment options. Although the pain and other symptoms can be extremely debilitating, there are effective therapies that can lead to relief. A question that many patients ask is if they will need back surgery and how effective it is compared to conservative treatment such as physical therapy.

The answer to this question depends on a number of considerations, including the specific diagnosis, severity of symptoms, patient’s medical history and how long they have been pursuing treatment. In general however, patients should expect to fully pursue conservative treatment before exploring back surgery. In fact a large number of people find lasting relief and are able to enjoy a good quality of life by committing to conservative options such as physical therapy.

To help you make a more informed decision about your care, the USA Spine Care team has created the following guide to understanding the treatment options for back pain. If you have any questions or want to learn more about your options for relief, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Why physical therapy and other conservative treatments are effective 

Although most spine conditions, such as spinal arthritis or herniated discs, are progressive in nature, symptoms often respond well to conservative treatments. This is because the goal of nonsurgical therapy is to relieve pain and improve function in the spine while also taking any steps to reduce stress and pressure on the spinal column.

Physical therapy is a particularly effective way to achieve improved function and reduced stress on the spine, and it uses primarily natural exercises and hands-on techniques. These include:

  • Therapeutic exercise — Through a combination of active and passive stretches and exercises, the goal is to stabilize and strengthen the spine while improving range of motion.
  • Manual therapy — Physical therapists can utilize techniques such as therapeutic massage and myofascial release to help mobilize soft tissue and joints while improving blood flow.
  • Movement and posture training — Physical therapy can also help patients learn better posture and mechanics that reduce stress on the spine and reduce pain during activity.

Physical therapy can be highly effective when combined with other conservative treatments. For example, pain-relieving corticosteroid injections can help people with severe back pain find enough relief to complete a course of physical therapy that would not have been possible otherwise. Options such as hot/cold therapy and over-the-counter medication are also effective at-home measures that patients can use to relieve back pain on an as-needed basis.

Considering back surgery — questions to ask your spine surgeon

Back surgery will generally become a consideration if weeks or months of conservative treatment does not provide the relief necessary to engage in the activities of daily living. It is important to find a spine surgeon you can trust and who has the experience and credentials necessary to offer you the best chance of long-term relief. Be prepared to seek out multiple opinions and trust your instincts when speaking with any prospective spine surgeon.

Questions any patient should ask when considering back surgery include:

  • What experience do you have treating my specific diagnosis?
  • What expectations should I have for recovery?
  • Are there any conservative options you would still recommend me to pursue?
  • Do you perform minimally invasive outpatient surgery?

Look for spine surgeons who take the time to explain your condition and proposed procedure to you. Patient-centered care for a treatment like back surgery matters, and you should expect a warm and friendly demeanor as well as eye contact from your surgeon and the staff.

Reach out to USA spine care

From physical therapy to back surgery, the multidisciplinary team at USA Spine Care can help you develop the personalized treatment plan that’s right for your wellness goals. We’re committed to delivering the highest level of care for anyone who comes to us for relief.

Contact us today to learn more.

Back Surgery Quick Answers

What are the different types of back surgery?

There are a range of approaches to back surgery as well as specific procedures for various spine conditions from herniated discs to arthritis. Back surgery can basically be divided into decompression surgery to treat nerve compression and fusion surgery to stabilize the spine because of injury or degeneration. Additionally, back surgery can also be divided into minimally invasive procedures and traditional full open spine surgery.

How serious is back surgery?

Undergoing any type of surgery, including spine surgery, is a serious decision. Factors that increase the complexity of surgery, including procedures at multiple levels of the spine or a large incision, can increase the risk of the procedure and how serious it is to the patient.

When should I consider back surgery?

For cases of nonemergency neck or back pain, such as from a degenerative condition, back surgery usually becomes a consideration after nonsurgical options like physical therapy have been fully exhausted. Patients will undergo an evaluation to determine if spine surgery is a viable option and what type of procedure is the best course of treatment.

What is recovery from back surgery like?

Recovery from back surgery depends on the patient and the type of procedure the surgeon performs. It is important to follow all postoperative instructions and balance staying mobile with not overexerting yourself. Recovery times can range from four weeks to months or longer, with minimally invasive procedures offering the opportunity for shorter recovery periods.


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