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Avoid Unnecessary Spinal Fusion Surgery

Renowned Scottsdale back pain physician says most spinal fusion surgeries can be avoided

How many times has someone said, “You’re never the same after back surgery!” According to Scottsdale back pain specialist Sham Vengurlekar, MDPC of Premier Pain Institute, it is not said nearly enough.

Spinal fusion surgery is a $40 billion dollar per year industry. However, most of these surgeries can and should be avoided, according to the Phoenix Magazine “Top Doc” who patients call “Dr. V.”

“Spinal fusion surgery is a major surgery, regardless of the patient’s age,” says Dr. Vengurlekar. “Despite the amazing strides made by modern medicine, these surgeries carry side effects and risks that range anywhere from failure to alleviate pain and underlying conditions, to much more serious outcomes.”

In fact, according to the Spine Research Foundation, spinal fusion surgery has a success rate of just 35%. Some of the more serious outcomes can include bleeding, infection, nerve damage, and scar tissue within the spinal canal. Risks for negative outcomes increase with age; and, even patients who have “successful surgeries” often end up on painkillers within two years after surgery.

“When two vertebrae are fused together, you don’t just lose mobility,” Dr. Vengurlekar says. “You put significantly more stress on the vertebrae above and below the fused vertebrae, which frequently leads to the need for additional back surgeries.”

A fusion surgery involves placing metal plates, screws, rods, and other implants in the spine (which are designed to hold two or more vertebrae in a fixed position). Naturally, the placement of metallic foreign bodies in a dynamic spine is painful in and of itself. However, over time, these instruments and implants result in the compression of tissues and nerves, which results in chronic pain.

Of course, spinal fusion is sometimes necessary. For instance, it can be required in cases of traumatic injury (to prevent paralysis), for tumor removal, or to correct congenital abnormalities. However, most surgeries are performed on people whose symptoms are labeled as “functional” or “nonspecific,” or more commonly from a protruded disc which causes symptoms of back pain and pain in the lower extremities, often called sciatica.

In today’s environment, physicians like Dr. Vengurlekar. can offer far less invasive and more affordable alternatives to spinal fusion surgery (which has an average cost of $80,000). For instance, disc decompression surgeries involve removing bone or tissue that is creating pressure on a spinal nerve. These and several other minimally invasive procedures should all be explored before even considering major back surgery, according to Dr. Vengurlekar and his colleagues at Premiere Pain Institute.

So how do people know if the back pain they are experiencing is normal? Dr. Vengurlekar. says that any time a herniated disc has protruded, and the patient’s symptoms of back and/or leg pain do not improve after a few days of anti-inflammatory oral medications, he or she should see a pain management specialist. Otherwise, the window of opportunity for treating such a potentially curable condition is lost.

“In a relatively short period of time, the patient can find him or herself with chronic pain, which causes significant suffering and loss of work and income,” says Dr. Vengurlekar. “They can also end up being prescribed potentially addicting drugs like pain killers and narcotics, which lead to additional side effects and disruption of life.”

In short, according to Dr. Vengurlekar, the expression “less is more” often applies to back pain. If you have back pain or neck pain that persists despite a few days of oral medications, you should seek a consultation from a pain management specialist immediately.


Sham Vengurlekar, MD PC, is Board Certified in Interventional Pain, Surgery and Anesthesiology. He has served the Scottsdale/North Phoenix area for decades, being named a “Top Doc” by Phoenix Magazine for many years. Dr. Vengurlekar’s Premier Pain Institute welcomes permanent residents and “snowbirds” alike. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Vengurlekar, call 480-314-2288, or email