The prospect of undergoing spine surgery brings to mind many questions, but tops among them may be: How should I select the kind of doctor to perform the surgery? Both orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons typically specialize in a wide range of spine surgeries, but the best choice likely depends on your specific condition and the surgeon’s expertise and qualifications, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.
The field of spine surgery, which has been established over the past 2 decades, incorporates both orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons, explains Dr. Liu. Both types of specialists also complete a lengthy, rigorous surgical residency in their field, and both tackle the estimated 1 million cases of spine surgery taking place in the United States each year.
So the question of which doctor is the best choice can initially stump patients. “It’s not always a straightforward answer, which makes it all the more important to understand what each type of surgeon does – and cannot do – and how that will impact your spine condition and recovery time,” Dr. Liu says.
What’s the difference between orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons?
The differences between neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons, in a nutshell, is that Neurosurgeons concentrate on the brain and nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord, nerves, and blood vessels in the skull. And Orthopedic surgeons focus on bone and joint disorders, including spinal disorders, arthritis, sports injuries, bone tumors, skeletal deformities and joint replacements. Both types of specialists can operate on disc herniations, disc degenerations, spinal stenosis, spinal fractures and other common spine conditions, he notes. But with nearly 3 dozen bones in the spine, Dr. Liu contends that orthopedic surgeons may have an advantage when tackling spine surgery.
Ask the right questions to make the best choice
Part of selecting the best surgeon to perform your spine surgery depends on locating surgeons in your region, Dr. Liu notes. Beyond that, you can enhance your chances of picking the optimal specialist for your particular back problem by asking candidates a few key questions:
- What is your experience with the specific procedure I need to have done?
- How many of these surgeries have you performed? (Look for someone with several hundred or more under their belt, Dr. Liu says.)
- What are your success rates for this surgery?
- Are you fellowship-trained in spine surgery? (Those who have this specialized training have completed even more training after their surgical residency in spine surgery, he says.)
Qualifications matter most, but also pay attention to how well a surgeon communicates with you, and if he or she takes the time to answer your questions thoroughly, Dr. Liu suggests.
“Don’t be afraid to speak up. Asking your surgeon about their expertise and track record, and if you’ve been presented with all the options, is absolutely essential,” he says. “Also, successful spine surgery relies above all on a correct diagnosis. Zeroing in on an experienced, skilled spine surgeon dramatically increases your odds of getting the right diagnosis and effective surgery.” Atlantic Spine Center is a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with several locations in NJ and NYC.
Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery at Atlantic Spine Center.