How Having Surgery Caused Doctors to Take My Pain More Seriously

I’ve had low back pain since 2000, and the journey from treatment to treatment has been long and arduous. First, there was the physical therapist. Then there was the chiropractor. Then was the pain specialist center with another physical therapist and another chiropractor. Then several more after that. During that time were many steroid epidural shots, trials with acupuncture, acupressure, biofeedback and much more. The list of medications tried is endless.

Finally, after 10 years, in 2010, I was sent to a neurosurgeon with an MRI in hand. He determined that since physical therapy hadn’t solved the problem, surgery was necessary. I had seen this coming for a long time. I had heard from many people that I should never get the surgery, or that surgery is only a last resort. It had been 10 years. I was at my last resort.


In July 2010, I had a lumbar fusion surgery at the L5-S1 level of the spine – a very common location for a very common surgery. Although the surgery was scheduled for two hours, it ended up taking six. The doctor told me there were some minor complications but nothing to worry about.

I spent five grueling days in the hospital and then two months at home recovering from the surgery. In the hospital, and for that recovery period, I was given an opioid that has acetaminophen in it. I had never been given an opioid before the surgery.

I had a follow-up appointment with the surgeon two months after the surgery. The conversation went like this:

Me: “Why didn’t you put me on opioids before the surgery to see if that would work first?”

Doctor: “Opioids are for people with serious back problems.”

Me: “You cut me open and fused my spine. Isn’t that serious?”

Doctor: “You had surgery?”

Me: “Yes. You were the surgeon.”

Doctor: “Oh, we should have tried opioids.”

Now, I highly doubt I would be in a different place had they tried opioids before the surgery. I know pills are not the magic wand and neither was the surgery. In fact, it caused more problems, with my leg, with my bladder and with fibromyalgia. But it is the arrogance in which he spoke and the lack of care before the surgery. He didn’t even remember cutting me open.

One positive aspect of the surgery is that I am treated differently. Before, they used to talk in terms of: “If you still have pain, then you must need three more weeks of physical therapy,” which of course I had figured out was not going to solve the problem. Today, I am a person who “had back surgery,” which means, “it’s really serious.” They take me seriously enough to prescribe me opioids.

My surgery was in 2010, before the “War on Opioids” had begun. And the opioid epidemic has never been drastic in Chicago like it has in other parts of the country. Seven years later, I am still on an opioid, but a less dangerous one. I don’t consider myself addicted to it, although it is a tool in my toolbox to fight the constant pain. (Ice packs are the best, but they are difficult to carry around and use.) Perhaps my pain team was afraid to give me the opioid because concern about addiction is growing in certain health care and political circles. Only after the surgery was I considered part of the special club of “serious back pain,” and therefore worthy of the opioid medication.

Luckily I have a much better doctor now; however, pain levels remain the same. At least my current doctor is familiar with my situation, looking for new solutions and is honest with me about medication use. Most importantly, he doesn’t want to cut me open.

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Thinkstock photo via Milos Spasic.

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