When is Back Surgery Right for You?


Olivia Macleod Olivia Macleod was sitting on the floor three years ago playing with her three-year-old niece and went to get up.

“Come on auntie, let’s go,” Olivia’s niece implored.

“I couldn’t get up,” Olivia remembers.

This was the first time Olivia, at 36 years of age, had experienced any back pain in her life. Little did she know this was the beginning of a painful three years ahead.

Olivia’s experience is common. Experts estimate 80% of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Low back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide and the second leading cause for doctor visits.

Olivia says she laid around for a few days and took Ibuprofen. She was able to recuperate enough to return to her everyday activities. Three weeks later it happened again. 

“I crawled to the chiropractor. I went in crying,” Olivia said.

She was diagnosed with a degenerative disc. She began regular chiropractic treatments, functioning well enough to work but remaining in constant discomfort. The treatments ended when she could no longer afford paying for regular visits.

Over the next eight months her condition deteriorated to the point that she needed to visit a general practitioner to get pain medication and start physical therapy.

She got an epidural, which is supposed to relieve pain for six months. Her relief lasted three weeks.

“I had a total emotional breakdown on my physical therapist,” Olivia recalls. “I couldn’t even put my shoes on.”

“I called my doctor and said ‘I’m done,’” Olivia remembers.

Olivia’s friend Amy Walsh is a physical therapist at Palomar Medical Center Escondido. She recommended Olivia see a spine surgeon affiliated with Palomar Health.

“When she came to me she had a lot of disc degeneration and a herniated disc,” Dr. Barba said, adding she had pinched nerves exiting the spine.

When consulting with clients, Dr. Barba says he looks at a variety of factors before recommending any treatment. 

“I give them all the options, the risks, the benefits,” Dr. Barba says. 

Many options are available like; simple rest, drugs, physical therapy, FACET injections, to the most invasive surgeries. However, Dr. Barba says he recommends back surgery for fewer than 5% of his patients.

After reviewing Olivia’s x-rays and discussing her options Olivia says Dr. Barba told her, “I know I can fix you but you have to make the decision.”

Friends, family, and doctors had discouraged her from pursuing back surgery because of her young age (38), but she had already unsuccessfully tried all the non-surgical methods.

“Dr. Barba did not have one ounce of hesitation. He was so confident he could make this work,” Olivia said.

Together Dr. Barba and Olivia decided to have an anterior spinal fusion. Dr. Barba performed the surgery on December 29, 2016. 

“This was my first surgery ever,” Olivia said. “I never broke any bones, nothing.”

The anterior spinal fusion was performed at Palomar Medical Center Escondido on a Thursday. She was released from the hospital the next day.

“Everyone was really amazed,” Olivia said. “The only thing that hurt was my incision.”

She was walking stairs within 24 hours and went shopping on Saturday, two days after surgery. 

“I felt great. I hadn’t felt back pain relief in years,” Olivia said. 

Five months after surgery Olivia is now walking 3-5 miles a day. She goes to the gym, rides a stationary bike, and is in the beginning stages of doing circuit training, including lifting weights. She is considering playing tennis and riding her standup paddle board again.

“It’s like night and day. I don’t feel restricted. I feel like it’s endless to what I can do.”

Olivia’s decision to have a spinal fusion has turned out exceptional for her as it has for thousands of others. Spinal fusions are dramatically superior today than they were even a decade ago. However, the decision to have any type of back surgery should not be taken lightly. Surgery should only be pursued after careful consideration between the patient and provider and only when the patient is certain they have run out of other options.

Palomar Health is a great option for patients with back and neck pain.  

They deliver complete care, ranging from non-surgical treatments that pinpoint pain at the source, to minimally invasive surgery that resolves complex conditions with lasting results.  The multidisciplinary team works together in utilizing state-of-the-art methods and fostering a caring environment, helping patients get back to everyday activity as quickly, comfortably, and safely as possible. 

Photo: Palomar Health patient Olivia Macleod went shopping two days after back surgery. She says her only regret is not having the surgery earlier.

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