What Are The Risks of Back Surgery?

With any type of surgical procedure, there are risks and possible complications to consider. So, if you’re a candidate for back surgery, you likely have many questions surrounding its risks. 

This article will cover the key risks, complications, and side effects associated with back surgery so that you can make the best decision for your medical needs. 

Table of Contents

Signs You Need Back Surgery

You may need back surgery if:

  • You have persistent back pain that hasn’t improved after six to 12 months of non-invasive treatment. 
  • Your back pain is progressive, meaning that it continues to worsen over time. 
  • Your back pain radiates to the extremities and is accompanied by numbness, weakness, or tingling. This is known as radiculopathy. 
  • Your mobility is declining as a result of your back pain. You may struggle to participate in physical activities that you used to enjoy, or walk for long distances. 
  • Your quality of life has diminished due to back pain and reduced mobility. 
  • Your back pain is caused by a degenerative spinal condition (such as spinal stenosis or degenerative spondylolisthesis) that isn’t responding to non-surgical therapies. 

Is Spinal Surgery a High-Risk Surgery?

Any type of surgery involves a risk of complications. Given that spinal surgery is performed close to the spinal cord, which is responsible for carrying nerve signals between the brain and body, it can cause severe complications. 

With that said, all surgeries are thoroughly tested, reviewed, and regulated for safety and effectiveness before being performed on patients. Additionally, your doctor will weigh the benefits and risks of spinal surgery before recommending it as a treatment option. It’s worth noting that back surgery risks for elderly patients are more likely to cause complications than in younger patients. 

What Percentage of Back Surgeries Are Successful?

One study conducted by the Asian Spine Journal estimated the success rate of back surgery to be approximately 50%. However, many factors influence this rate, including the patient’s health, any underlying conditions, and the type of back surgery performed. You can ask your surgeon about the probability of success in your case.

What Are The Chances of Back Surgery Going Wrong?

The chances of back surgery going wrong depend on many factors. However, up to 40% of people who undergo back surgery experience continued pain after the procedure. 

Factors that may increase the chances of back surgery going wrong include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Anemia
  • Cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and heart issues
  • Osteoporosis and other forms of metabolic bone disease
  • Long-term use of corticosteroid medications
  • Smoking and tobacco use
  • Chronic pain from other conditions (i.e. fibromyalgia)
  • Intraoperative risk factors, like the surgeon not creating enough space around the nerves or not creating enough space around the nerves

Ways in which back surgery can go wrong include:

  • Failed spinal fusion, meaning the bone graft fails to fuse the targeted vertebrae
  • Surgical complications, such as wound infection, reactions to anesthesia, blood clots, or shock
  • Recurrent back pain after the procedure
  • Accidental damage to the spinal cord or spinal nerves
  • Spinal fluid leakage (known as incidental durotomy)
  • Bleeding inside the spinal cord

What Are The Risks Associated With Back Surgery?

Anesthesia Risks

For one, back surgeries present the risk of complications associated with anesthesia. The risk of these complications is higher for procedures that are done under general anesthesia, rather than local anesthesia. 

Potential complications of anesthesia include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sore throat and damage to the larynx
  • Teeth damage
  • Nerve injury
  • Allergic reactions
  • Hyperthermia
  • Aspiration pneumonitis
  • Stroke
  • Hypoxic brain injury
  • Malignant hyperthermia
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Cardiovascular collapse
  • Embolic event


For most patients, the risk of infection is low after back surgery. However, it’s crucial to follow all of your surgeon’s wound care instructions to prevent infection following the procedure. 

Blood Loss

Blood loss is another key risk of back surgery. Your spinal surgeon will take many steps to reduce blood loss through the advanced incision and wound closure techniques. 

Blood Clots

Blood clots are a considerable risk in all surgical procedures. Following a surgical procedure, the body actively tries to stop the bleeding caused by the operation. This can cause clotting, as can injured blood vessels around the area affected by the surgery. 

In the first couple of weeks following surgery, blood clots may appear. The symptoms of a blood clot to look out for include inflammation in the calf, foot, or ankle, tenderness or redness in the leg, and calf pain.  

Laser Back Surgery Risks

Additionally, laser back surgery can involve different risks. One of the key laser back surgery risks includes damage to the surrounding tissue. 

What Are The Chances of Getting Paralyzed From Back Surgery?

Paralysis is one of the fusion back surgery risks. Although it’s rare, this complication is very serious and can permanently limit patients’ mobility following the procedure. 

To help you understand the odds of developing paralysis from back surgery, let’s consider a few key statistics: 

  • Approximately 1 in 10,000 patients who undergo herniated disc surgery will develop paralysis. This makes it one of the rarest herniated disc back surgery risks and complications. 
  • Out of 11,817 adult spinal surgeries, 21 patients experienced a new onset of major neurological deficit immediately after the procedure. The incidence of this complication was 0.178% overall. 

How to Decrease the Risks of Back Surgery?

While there’s no way to make back surgery entirely risk-free, you can reduce the risks of back surgery by making certain lifestyle adjustments. By adopting healthy habits well in advance of the procedure, you can also improve the procedure’s chance of success. 

  • Quit smoking several weeks before back surgery. 

Smoking cigarettes and using any type of nicotine product greatly increases the risks of any surgery. Nicotine inhibits circulation, which hinders the recovery process and increases the risk of infection after an operation.  

  • Get your blood sugar under control. 

If you have diabetes, make sure that your blood sugar is successfully managed before undergoing surgery. High blood sugar increases the risk of infection after surgery. 

  • Get your blood pressure under control. 

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can increase the risk of complications from anesthesia, including heart attack, stroke, and congestive heart failure. If you struggle with high blood pressure, talk to a physician about getting it under control before undergoing surgery.  

  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight. 

Though it’s far easier said than done, reaching and maintaining a healthy weight will positively impact your recovery from back surgery. Obesity is a risk factor for infections and complications relating to the heart and lungs after surgery. 

If you’re not able to reach your ideal weight before undergoing back surgery, shedding even a few extra pounds will support your body’s healing process. Patients who are struggling with weight loss should consider talking to a physician about effective weight loss strategies. 

  • Eat healthily. 

Sticking to a healthy diet goes hand-in-hand with maintaining a healthy weight before and after back surgery. But, beyond helping you shed extra pounds, a healthy diet provides the nutrition that your body needs to effectively heal after surgery. 

Are You Awake During Back Surgery?

No, most patients are put under general anesthesia for back surgery. This means that you’ll be fully asleep for the entirety of the procedure.

What Is The Most Common Back Surgery?

Spinal fusion is the most prevalent surgery for chronic back pain in patients with spinal degeneration. In spinal fusion, the surgeon places bone graft material in between the affected spinal bones, called vertebrae. Over several weeks following the procedure, the bone graft will fuse the vertebrae into one bone. 

The key risks of back fusion surgery that patients must consider include:

  • Normal surgical risks, including the risk of bleeding, blood clots, infection, and nerve damage
  • Pain at the location of the fusion
  • Pseudoarthrosis, meaning that the fusion doesn’t stimulate adequate bone formation, necessitating a second surgery
  • Adjacent segment disease, or ASD, develops when the vertebrae on top of and below the fused segment degenerate more rapidly as a result of the fusion

Additionally, spinal fusion can require a lengthy recovery period. The patient may need to remain in the hospital for up to four days following the procedure. Additionally, it can take six weeks (or even longer) for patients to notice signs of bone healing. 

To completely heal from fusion, patients may require six months to a year. During this recovery period, patients’ mobility and range of motion are generally very limited. 

Can I Lower The Risks of Spinal Fusion Surgery?

Many of the risks of lower back fusion surgery can be reduced or eliminated with fusion alternatives including the TOPS System from Premia Spine. This non-fusion spinal implant allows for a minimally-invasive procedure, which limits surgical risks and complications. 

Regain your mobility with Premia Spine! Contact us now

Additionally, by eliminating the need for fusion, the TOPS System preserves the independent motion of the vertebrae. This allows the patient to retain his or her complete range of motion in the back. 

Regain your mobility with Premia Spine!

David danced at his son’s wedding

Bonnie explains why TOPS surgery was the right decision for her

Wade is back to hiking

Scott speaks about going to surgery

Medical innovations like the TOPS System continue to reduce the risks and complications associated with back surgery. So, make sure to talk to your spine specialist about all of the chronic back remedies available today before deciding on a treatment plan.