Tiger Woods is an absolute phenomenon, even after spinal fusion surgery.
Fans questioned whether he would ever return to full capacity after a long list of knee and back injuries.
3 failed spine operations only compounded the public’s fears.
Doctors ultimately performed a fourth operation in 2017, a spinal fusion surgery called anterior lumbar interbody fusion.
Afterward, Tiger miraculously re-merged in 2019 by winning the Master’s Golf Tournament for the 5th time.
Such a comeback might inspire millions of amateur golfers suffering from lower back pain to also consult a fusion specialist.
Unfortunately, the track record for such an operation is troublesome at best.
Dr. Sohail K. Mirza, a spine surgeon at Dartmouth, was quoted as saying that an outcome like Tiger’s from spinal fusion surgery is so rare that it’s “like winning the lottery.”
Dr. Mirza says that only about 50% of fusion operations succeed.
What’s alarming about that statistic is that “success” in his study was defined as only a 30% relief in pain and a 30% improvement in function.
What Doctors Say About Spinal Fusion Surgery
Spinal fusion surgery is among the top 5 operations performed in the U.S.
The approximate number of these procedures is about 350,000 each year.
Unfortunately, the success rate is pretty miserable.
A study published in Pain in 2018 showed that only 9% of fusion patients were able to stop taking opioids for pain,.
Furthermore, 13% who had not taken opioids before the surgery became lifelong users of the drugs afterward.
Tiger’s own surgeon co-authored another study that reported only a 57% success rate after 2 years with spinal fusion surgery.
A 50-50 chance might be worth the gamble for people in debilitating pain, but the researchers defined “success” as a 25% improvement in overall functioning, not necessarily a reduction of pain.
“I would be very hesitant, and most surgeons would be very hesitant, to tell patients that after fusion they would be pain-free.”Tony Delitto, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences
There are indeed instances in which spinal fusion has given people their lives back, but in many cases pain is still a daily challenge.
There is also the possibility that additional operations will be needed.
Dr. Steven Atlas, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, cautions patients that they will likely have more surgeries later in life once a fusion operation is performed because of the spinal instability the procedure causes.
“If your goal is a cure, that isn’t what this is going to offer,” he said.
Are There Valid Alternatives To Surgery?
“If you are in a good surgeon’s office, fusion is the last thing you will be offered.”Dr. Steven Hughes – spine surgeon, Northern Virginia
I’ve spoken to patients who were indifferent toward spinal fusion surgery as a means to cure their pain. They viewed it as a quick, easy answer for getting back to life as usual.
It rarely is, in my experience.
Physicians like Dr. Atlas and Dr. Mirza say they try to talk most back pain patients out of fusion surgery.
Instead, they recommend conservative treatment first.
Read More: Is my back pain an emergency or should I consult a chiropractor?
What kinds of conservative methods are scientifically sound? Chiropractic (1, 2), physical therapy, acupuncture (3), yoga (4), and massage therapy are just a few that come to mind.
Naturally, you’ll want to schedule an evaluation with a licensed professional before proceeding with any kind of treatment.
Read More: 10 questions to ask during your chiropractic consultation.