Marion had two spinal fusions to treat a bulging disc in her lower back – but years later, she’s still in pain.
Nicola McCaskill

15 May - 1:44 PM  UPDATED 15 May - 4:36 PM

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Australians go under the knife for orthopaedic surgeries, often to ease the pain of osteoarthritis in their joints. Many patients benefit, but experts have raised concerns that some commonly performed surgeries are not evidence based, and might be unnecessary or even harmful.

Spinal surgery has emerged as a particularly controversial procedure. While hip and knee replacements have high success rates, operations to treat back pain are more complicated, and haven’t been proven to work in clinical trials.

About 80 per cent of people have back pain at some point in their life, and often it improves on its own. Experts say that while many people’s back pain improves after surgery, that doesn’t mean the surgery – which carries its own risks – is what made it better.

Insight cuts through the confusion to ask how patients, surgeons and other specialists can make a joint decision about when to operate – or not.

Nevertheless, almost 16,000 spinal fusions were done on patients in Australian hospitals in 2014-2015, the most recent data available. And the number of people having spinal operations, such as fusions, is continuing to rise, with increasing numbers of patients having their vertebrae fused together in the hopes of reducing or eliminating their pain.

Marion Hale is one of them. She had two spinal fusions, several years apart, in her lowest vertebrae, to treat debilitating back pain caused by a bulging disc.

While she feels the surgery was successful, years later Marion still finds herself left with back pain. Faced with the same decision again, she tells Jenny Brockie she probably wouldn’t have the operations. 

Marion shared her story on Joint Operation, as Insight speaks to patients, surgeons and other medical specialists to ask: how do you decide when surgery is the best option, and who makes the call?