So many of us experience back/neck pain, often more so as we age. Why is this such a common problem?
My mother-in-law lived into her 90s and played doubles tennis until she was 87 years old. I walked in one day as she was on the floor doing her daily stretches. Seeing me she said, “Getting old is not for the faint of heart!”
She was right of course; as we age our joints become more arthritic, our tendons and ligaments more fibrotic and less supple, and the spine stiffer and less mobile. These are all part of the normal aging process.
When is it time to seek help for back/neck pain from a health care professional?
Ninety percent of the time, symptoms of back and neck pain resolve on their own. So the general rule is that one should seek help for back and neck pain if the symptoms don’t improve after a few weeks.
However, medical attention must be sought urgently if the individual experiences numbness, tingling, loss of sensation, weakness or difficulty controlling bowel or bladder function. These may the signs of a serious underlying problem.
You are the co-founder of Spine Options, committed to non-surgical care of back and neck pain. How much can be done to alleviate back/neck pain without resorting to surgery? When is it time to consider surgery?
Almost all of back and neck pain can be treated effectively without surgery. In fact, the largest providers of medical services to treat these conditions are Chiropractors. The same may be said of Physical Therapists, Alexander and Feldenkreis technique teachers, acupuncturists, and other such modalities.
In my book Ending Back Pain: 5 Powerful Steps to Diagnose, Understand, and Treat Your Ailing Back, I review these and other nonsurgical modalities and provide the reader with advice as to which modalities should be considered.
The question of when surgery is needed is complex. Some guidelines are:
- Make sure that the SOURCE of your pain has been identified. In Ending Back Pain, I review the short list of what are called the Pain Generators which are the most common causes of lower back pain and how they can be diagnosed.
- Assure yourself that you have exhausted the non-surgical options which are also outlined in the book.
- Seek a qualified surgeon who is willing to listen and explains in clear and simple language why she feels that surgery is the best option.
Can you give us an example of one or two people you helped significantly alleviate back pain and how? (ideally my target, women 40+)
In the book, I describe a very aristocratic woman in her late 70s, a world traveler, whom I diagnosed with severe spinal stenosis. I said to her “Because of your age, I don’t suggest surgery.” And she responded with “Doctor, I will decide that.” Well, she had surgery and for years she would send me postcards from the most exotic places.
Mrs. T. is an avid golfer and noted that she had stopped walking the course and was, instead, using the golf cart. When asked why, she would describe low back pain but also the gradual onset of pain in her left buttock. Her son, a physician in our community, noted that she was limping and insisted that she get spinal x-rays. The x-rays showed arthritis of the spine but more significantly arthritis of her left hip. I sent her to the orthopedist, and she had a very successful hip replacement. She is back walking the golf course.
The lesson: making the correct diagnosis is essential in proper treatment.
What are your top tips for living a life that supports a strong, healthy back and neck?
- Maintain proper weight
- Choose the right parents. I know that seems ridiculous but back and neck pain is frequently a familial disorder and we are in fact getting closer to identifying the genes associated with this problem.
Besides your own, what other resources do you recommend for back/neck pain sufferers?
There are several sources that provide intelligent information:
Connect with Jack Stern, M.D., Ph.D.:
Contact page: https://drjackstern.com/contact
Books: Ending Back Pain: 5 Powerful Steps to Diagnose, Understand, and Treat Your Ailing Back
Jack Stern, M.D., Ph.D., is the author of Ending Back Pain: 5 Powerful Steps to Diagnose, Understand, and Treat Your Ailing Back. He is a board-certified neurosurgeon specializing in spinal surgery, and cofounder of Spine Options, one of America’s first facilities committed to nonsurgical care of back and neck pain. Dr. Stern is on the clinical faculty at Weill Cornell Medical College and has published numerous peer- and non-peer-reviewed medical articles. He lives and practices in White Plains, New York.