Operating (for) legitimacy: Pain, surgical seriality, and “failed back surgery syndrome” in US biomedicine

Megan Crowley-Matoka*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Back-pain patients in the US may undergo multiple surgeries in search of relief, enduring a sometimes-stunning repetition of procedures that can actually intensify and extend their pain. Such outcomes have now been rendered as an illness with its own diagnostic label: “failed back surgery syndrome.” Producing both pathology and profit, this surgical seriality reflects the ambivalence of pain (and its treatments) in the US and maps the mutual mediation of pharmaceutical and surgical therapeutic modes in contemporary biomedicine. For both patients and doctors, the surgicalization of back pain confirms that pain is real and serious, and also conforms to valued forms of (productive, nonnarcotized) life. It thus reflects and reinscribes situated social ideals of embodied and moral personhood in the contemporary US. [failed back surgery syndrome, surgical seriality, pain, medicalization, pharmaceuticalization, surgicalization, moral personhood, United States].

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-71
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Ethnologist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology


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