What are the differences between a neurosurgeon and a spine surgeon?

If you are experiencing pain in your back or neck and the therapies suggested by your regular doctor have not helped alleviate your condition, then you may need to seek out specialized spinal care. Your doctor may suggest that you speak to a spine surgeon, or perhaps a neurologist. But, which is right for the care you need?

It surprises many people to find out that both orthopedic spine surgeons and neurosurgeons have the education and training needed to perform complex spinal surgeries. In fact, there are so few differences between the two that both are increasingly referred to simply as ‘spine surgeons’ when dealing with back and neck complaints. This gives patients greater choice when it comes to selecting their care provider and ensures that you can choose the best specialist possible for your forthcoming surgery.


Neurosurgery is a medical specialization, and it focuses on treating patients that are suffering from diseases or disorders that affect their nervous system. This includes the brain, spinal column, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves, as well as the extra-cranial cerebrovascular system.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that neurosurgeons are only educated and trained in brain surgery. In fact, all neurosurgeons trained in the United States (and in many other parts of the world) also gain experience in the diagnosis and treatment, both surgical and non-surgical, of spinal disorders while they are undertaking their residency training program. By the time a neurosurgeon has graduated from medical school, he or she will have normally already assisted in hundreds of spinal procedures.

After this point, some neurosurgeons will go on to specialize in brain surgery, while others will concentrate their practice on spinal procedures. Some will do both and divide their practice between them. However, one notable difference is that neurosurgeons only undertake a small but significant part of treating the patient. They do not liaise with them during every stage of the treatment, and once discharged, the patient will probably have little to no contact with them again.

Orthopedic Spine Surgeons

An orthopedic spine surgeon, as you may have guessed, specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions and disorders that affect the back and neck, including the spine itself. However, unlike neurosurgeons, spine surgeons tend to be involved in the entire journey with the patient, from the initial diagnosis to the rehabilitation process after the treatment has ended.

While they do have some education and training on the nervous system and its importance when it comes to conditions of the back and neck, they do not have the same level of specialism in neurology that a neurosurgeon does. That said, a spine surgeon will still be concerned with a patient’s nerves when performing any sort of treatment. This is because there is a lot of nerves in and around the spine that may be affected when treatment, even of a non-invasive nature, is performed on the neck or back.

Are there any spine surgeries which an orthopedic surgeon can perform that a neurosurgeon cannot, or vice versa?

Yes, there are still a few procedures that can only be performed by certain specialists. Spinal cord tumors, arachnoid cysts, nerve root tumors and some other conditions that require surgery to be performed inside the lining of the spinal canal can only be carried out by a neurosurgeon. However, pediatric and adult scoliosis and similar spinal deformities are normally only treated by orthopedic spine specialists.

Your doctor should refer you to the right specialist for the type of back or neck problem that you are experiencing.

Having a choice between a neurosurgeon and orthopedic spine surgeon enables you to find the very best professional that you can afford for your neck or back surgery.