Salt Lake City, UT -- (ReleaseWire) -- 09/03/2020 --The human spine is an engineering marvel. Small stacked bones called vertebrae are separated by shock absorbing intervertebral disks and facet joints that allow the back to move in many directions. The spinal column houses and protects the spinal cord that contains 31 pairs of nerves that transmit messages between the brain and body. Strong ligaments, tendons, and muscles hold the spine in place.
A healthy back is often taken for granted. The slightest twinge of back pain, however, shows how important the spine is during all daily activities.
Striking as often as the common cold, back pain is one of the most common reasons for missing work and seeing a doctor. As many as eight out of every ten adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain becomes more common as people age. The reasons and causes of back pain are as varied as the individuals who experience it.
"The good news is, many back-pain symptoms can improve without surgery," said Frank Bishop, MD, neurosurgeon at Intermountain Healthcare's Southern Utah Neurosciences Institute. "And many surgical options are minimally invasive. Back pain and sciatica that persist longer than three months should be evaluated. Waiting too long to see a medical provider may cause further damage."
Back pain that is severe, causes numbness, fever, tingling sensations, or weakness in the legs, or difficulty controlling the legs, should be addressed by a primary care physician promptly. Primary care providers will be able to determine the best specialist to see – pain management specialist, physiatrist, orthopedist, physical therapist, neurologist, or neurosurgeon.
"Diagnosis is not always very clear when it comes to the spine," said Bishop. "Often there is a poor correlation between symptoms and imaging data, such as MRI. While the cause of patient symptoms may be clearly evident on MRI, this isn't always the case. It's important to try to match patient symptoms with the imaging findings. Spine issues can usually be divided into two categories: musculoskeletal or nerve compression. Surgery is typically better for treating nerve pain than for back pain."
Surgery is indicated based on anatomy. A surgeon changes anatomy, and hopefully that change will address the pain symptoms. Not all back pain issues can be addressed surgically. For example, when imaging shows degeneration, arthritis, or spinal muscular atrophy then a care provider might recommend physical therapy, regular exercise, and lifestyle changes of even a combination of all of them.
"Lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of back pain and injury," Bishop said. "Maintaining a healthy weight or losing excess weight will often ease back pain because extra abdominal weight strains the lower back. Exercising regularly – including stretching, yoga, and walking – all help strengthen core back muscles. Prolonged sitting or slouching can also weaken back muscles and result in pain."
"I also recommend smoking cessation," said Bishop. "Smoking causes premature aging of the body and introduces many health concerns, including with the spine."
While it's not possible to replace something as complex as a spine (like a painful knee or hip joint can be replaced) there are many modern minimally invasive surgical procedures to address spine-related symptoms.
"When it comes to treating sciatica and back pain," Bishop said. "Seeing a surgeon shouldn't be last on your list of treatment options. Don't wait too long for a surgical evaluation. We prefer to see and treat patients before the onset of nerve damage. And don't be afraid to explore second opinions and the various surgical treatment options to decide what is right for you."
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle may reduce the risk of developing back pain in the future. Back issues are often treatable with multiple treatment options. Those suffering with symptoms of back or nerve pain are encouraged to see their care provider who can help guide your way back to health and better quality of life.
About Intermountain Healthcare
Intermountain Healthcare is a not-for-profit system of 24 hospitals, 215 clinics, a Medical Group with 2,500 employed physicians and advanced practice clinicians, a health insurance company called SelectHealth, and other health services in Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. Intermountain is widely recognized as a leader in transforming healthcare by using evidence-based best practices to consistently deliver high-quality outcomes and sustainable costs. For more information, see intermountainhealthcare.org.