Failed Back Surgery Syndrome: Symptoms, Diagnosing, and Treatments

February 7, 2024

Failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) is the term used for continued pain a patient has after an unsuccessful back surgery. The patient is usually referred to a pain management specialist to treat existing pain. 

The goal of spinal surgery is to decompress a nerve root or to stabilize a painful joint. FBSS occurs when surgery is unsuccessful or when the surgery negatively affects a structure near the problem area. 

Spinal surgery is complicated because it can be hard to diagnose the cause of the pain. X-Rays and MRIs limit what doctors can see because many times, the pain occurs when the patient is moving and active. Imaging only provides still images. 

Signs & Symptoms of FBSS

One common complaint physicians hear from patients is chronic back pain. However, not everyone experiences the same pain, and the type of pain they experience can vary, based on their spinal disorder, their previous procedure, or underlying cause of FBSS. 

Other types of pain that can be associated with FBSS are: 

  • Nociceptive Pain – Localized pain that may be dull or sharp. 
  • Neuropathic Pain – Nerve-related pain is caused by damage to the nerves or spinal cord.
  • Radicular Pain – Radicular pain radiates from one area to another

Other common symptoms of Failed Back Surgery Syndrome include:

  • Return of original symptoms & pain – When the  symptoms return that the original procedure was intended to correct, it may be a sign of FBSS.
  • Reduced mobility – Recovering from back surgery is a process. However, if mobility is reduced or limitations arise that are different than predicted by your physician, it could be a sign of FBSS. 
  • New problems arise – While the original symptoms may be corrected by the surgery, new pain in a different part of the spine should be discussed with your doctor. 
  • Onset of Headaches – If headaches were not a part of your medical history prior to having surgery, this may be a sign of nerve damage after a spinal procedure. 

Diagnosing Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

The first step to diagnosing FBSS pain is to see a doctor for a physical exam. Motion, sensitivity, and strength help doctors decide the next steps to correctly diagnose the pain. Your medical history, pain levels, and previous treatments are discussed with your doctor to help them define the pain and decide on a treatment method. 

Having tests like CT scans, MRIs, and X-Rays help doctors take an inside look at your pain. The images don’t always show the root cause of the pain, making FBSS hard to diagnose. 

Since imaging is not always reliable, doctors may use another form of testing to diagnose your pain. This is called an aware state surgical examination.  A doctor uses a small probe and stimulates the spinal cord, mimicking the pain, and triggering a response from the patient. This informs the doctor as to what type of pain the patient is having and how it is caused. 

Back pain patients are referred to pain management specialists who treat their pain and help improve their quality of life through short-term techniques. 

Conservative  Treatments for Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

There are many conservative treatments for FBSS.Besides the physical therapy and pharmacological therapy with over the counter or prescription medications, doctors use minimally invasive interventional modalities such as epidural steroid injections and injections of the lumbar facet joints or associated medial branches, with or without radiofrequency ablation rhizotomy (RFA).What makes these a consrvative first choice option is the minimally invasive nature of the procedures.These therapeutic interventions are designed to treat the pain and provide temporary symptomatic relief. 

The team at Haydel Spine Pain & Wellness can help you find relief from your failed back surgery and find solution that get you back to doing what you love. Fill out the form below to get started.


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