Conservative treatment vs Surgery: a Tough Choice

Pain, pain, and more pain. The pain results from a bulging disc or herniated disc cannot be imagined by people who don't have the problems. I have a herniated L5-S1 disc. In the worst days, I experience the following types of pain:

  • The sharp, needle pinch pain right in my lower back.
  • The burning pain in my right leg from thigh to my toes.
  • The tingling or numb sensation in my right leg.

The pain level is so high that I can not walk continuously for five minutes. I can not stand for more than ten minutes. I immediately feel the pain after I get up from bed. I can not fall asleep due to pain. I sometimes even wake up in the middle of the night because of the pain. Life is hopeless at that time. Many times I wonder: what's the fun of life if I always have the leg pain like this? Many times I quest: How to relieve my back and leg pain once and for all? Readers, do you have similar despair?

People with lumbar disc problems feel the back and leg pain because the bulging or herniated disc presses and irritates the nerve root in the spine. Such pinch creates bio-electric signals and the brain interprets the signals as pain. Surgery removes the pressure using various methods. Thus, it seems to be the only method that can possibly cure it once and for all. But, what are the risks? I don't believe in the doctors, because it is just their jobs to help me. They don't feel the same pain as I do. After all, nobody cares about my pain more than I do. Thus, I start my own independent search.

Several spinal surgeons in China told me the reality that the doctors seldom tell the patients. (My family has some personal relations with the doctors, so we have some extended discussions on this issue)

  • The vast majority of the patients who have disc problems do not need surgery and can be treated using conservative methods.
  • Surgeons in China sometimes recommend surgery even when extended conservative treatments would achieve the same effect. They recommend surgery because their compensations depend on it.
  • Surgery is not a once and for all solution, instead, it is more like a quick fix for people cannot withstand the pain. If the surgery is unsuccessful, the pain does not disappear. Even if the surgery is successful, many times the pain comes back after some time, maybe after a couple of years, maybe more.
  • When surgery is considered, try the least invasive procedure first. Only perform spinal fusion as the last resort, because it is the most invasive procedure. Spinal fusion joins two vertebrae. It is the ultimate method to relieve the pressure on the nerve root between the two vertebrae, because the disc between them is taken away. However, it puts a lot more pressure on other discs and thus other discs may tend to have issues easily.
  • Surgery changes the mechanical structure of the body. The surgical spot becomes a weak point. It can no longer protect the body to the same degree as healthy ones.
  • Most surgical procedures are irreversible. If the surgery is unsuccessful due to whatever reason, it is harder to correct.
  • The skill of the surgeons vary a lot, and the success rate varies a lot depending on the surgeon. They don't recommend me to do surgery. Even if I do surgery, they wouldn't do it themselves. It doesn't mean they are not good. They do similar surgeries on a daily bases. Their clinical experience are much richer than surgeons in US, because they do more surgeries everyday. Their hospital is AAA level (the best level in China). However, they only recommend to do the surgery in Beijing, where the very top surgeons can be found.

In contrast, the conservative treatments have the following pros and cons:

  • Conservative treatments are generally safe. They are not invasive. They help the body to heal itself. (good)
  • The tissues around the spinal cord do not have blood vessels. Thus, the healing process is very slow, which means the conservative treatments need to be applied for extended period of time. (bad)
  • Conservative methods usually cannot retract the herniated or bulging disc to its original position (bad). However, traction may partially achieve the purpose.
  • The surgeons in China have seen patients whose herniated disc occupies 70% of space previously occupied by the nerve root, yet the patients do not have any pain. There is enough space between the bones. As long as the nerve root does not touch the herniated disc, and does not get inflamed, there is no pain. The conservative methods may guide the nerve root to adapt the pressure and/or help to move the nerve root to get around the herniated or bulging part of the disc. (good) That said, the conservative methods can be a permanent solution.

For me, I chose the conservative methods to fight a long and extended battle against pain, instead of choosing the quick fix surgery. Readers, after reading my analysis, what is your choice?

Readers, if you choose surgery after carefully considering all possibilities, I'm here to wish you good luck. If, however, you still have some hope on the safer conservative methods, I'm here to provide you a few therapies that worked for me. I hope they will work for you as well.

I know sticking to the conservative methods and checking their effectiveness over a long time is hard. Sometimes the pain can be unbearable so all you think is the magic bullet. Sometimes the pain affects your life so much that you don't want to spend extended time on the conservative treatments. Here comes your attitude, determination.