What is failed back surgery syndrome?

Failed back surgery syndrome is a combination of negative complications after a traditional open back surgery or fusion. The term is used to describe the conditions that arise when a back surgery fails to accomplish the desired goals of pain relief. It can also encompass complications that occur during and after a surgical procedure that exacerbate the condition being treated or cause additional issues for the patient.

The characteristic symptoms of failed back surgery syndrome include the development of new pain or increase of previous pain compared to the pain level prior to back surgery. It can also include limited mobility and spasms in the back or extremities.

If you are recovering from back surgery, the last phrase you want to hear is failed back surgery syndrome. For many patients, back surgery was a last resort treatment after years of suffering and ineffective conservative treatments. This type of diagnosis can be catastrophic for a patient. By understanding what causes failed back surgery syndrome, you and your physician can determine the next steps necessary for pain relief.

What causes back surgery to fail?

One of the most common reasons that traditional open back surgery fails is the highly invasive techniques used during the procedure.

For many traditional open back surgeries, the procedure begins with a large incision in the back that spans sometimes 6 or more inches. Once the incision is made, the surgeon then removes the muscles around the spine that are obstructing the surgery by cutting through the muscles and sometimes detaching the muscles altogether. This highly invasive incision and muscle-tearing procedure increases a patient’s risk of excessive blood loss, infection and excessive scar tissue — all of which can lead to failed back surgery syndrome.

Excessive scar tissue caused by the invasive incision of traditional spine surgery is one of the most common causes of increased pain and symptoms after the procedure. As the body works to rebuild the skin, muscles and ligaments around the site of the incision, scar tissue builds up internally to help seal the cuts. This scar tissue can protrude into the spinal canal, pinching a nerve root and causing severe pain and symptoms. Additionally, the scar tissue can expand into the spinal fusion area itself and prevent the fusion from fully forming.

What can be done to treat failed back surgery syndrome?

When treating failed back surgery syndrome, the usual approach is to address the underlying issue, which could also alleviate any related symptoms. Sometimes, this can be done through conservative means, such as TENS therapy (transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation), physical therapy, stretches, exercises, and hot and cold compresses.

In other cases, additional surgery may be advised. Although the previous surgery was likely a disappointment for the patient, a minimally invasive surgery at Laser Spine Institute can help alleviate the effects of failed back surgery syndrome. Our minimally invasive procedures include a small, less than 1-inch incision that does not alter the muscles or ligaments near the spine. We have helped more than 75,000 people find relief from chronic neck and back pain — many of them suffering from failed back surgery syndrome — and we are confident we can help you recapture your quality of life.

To learn more, contact Laser Spine Institute today. We can review your MRI or CT scan to determine whether our procedures may be a viable solution to your ongoing pain.