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Back pain is one of the most common reasons people see their doctor.
Sometimes, all you need to manage pain is a little rest and relaxation. Other times, you may need to see a doctor. Learn when it’s time to schedule that appointment.
Conservative treatments can help you stay out of the operating room and effectively address your pain, symptoms and specific diagnosis.
If you do need surgery, you can be confident that your doctor has your best interest in mind. Discover what to look for in your spine surgeon.
Here’s a statistic that’ll send a shiver down your spine – almost 65 million Americans report a recent bout with back pain.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Researchers also found that 16 million people suffer from chronic back pain – pain that is persistent enough to interfere with their daily activities, like enjoying their favorite exercise, meeting up with friends or just finishing chores around the house. And back pain isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s keeping people from work: back pain results in 83 million lost workdays, every year.
Fortunately, there is help and hope.
There are many treatments and therapies to help relieve your pain. Best of all – some of the most effective are non-surgical.
“Dealing with back pain can be very discouraging,” says Stephen Campbell, MD, neurosurgeon at Providence Montana Neurosurgical Specialists. “Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Your doctor can help you find the approach that addresses the cause of your pain and reduces your symptoms. Many people with neck and back pain won’t need surgery. Instead, your doctor will work with a team of specialists to find what’s going to help you feel your best again.”
“At the Providence Neuroscience Institute, we've led the collection of patient-reported outcomes in the entire system over the past several years. We are now in line to pilot the first-evert Spine Intake questionnaire in the system. Our staff takes the extra time to thoroughly explain the importance of the completion of the survey to have the best outcome for the patient. This will also help us better understand future outcomes for other patients with similar symptoms,” says Amy Lybbert, Neuroscience Service Line Operations Manager.
When to see a doctor
Most of the time, back pain will start to feel better on its own after taking it easy for a few days. Ice, heat and anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen or Aleve, can also help your symptoms. But if your pain continues over the next few weeks without any improvement then you may want to schedule an appointment with your doctor.
“Your primary care provider is an excellent resource in diagnosing and treating back pain,” shares Dr. Campbell. “They’ll be able to take a complete history, including when your symptoms started and discuss anything that could have caused an injury to your spine. They may refer you to physical therapy or suggest a prescription-strength anti-inflammatory to see if that improves your pain.”
However, Dr. Campbell cautions people experiencing any of the following symptoms. If you have any of these symptoms along with neck or back pain, don’t wait to see if things improve on their own:
- Pain or numbness in arms or legs
- Difficulty walking
- Problems with balance
“Pain or numbness in the extremities or difficulties with balance or walking may indicate your spinal cord is being compressed, which needs to be evaluated and addressed immediately,” states Dr. Campbell.
What to expect when you see a neurosurgeon for spine pain
Every provider has a slightly different process, but when it comes to seeing one of the neurosurgeons in Dr. Campbell’s practice, patients can expect a thorough and detailed evaluation. It’s important to know that seeing a neurosurgeon doesn’t always mean you will need surgery.
“Our patients can typically expect an hour in the office – which includes check-in time, a discussion with the medical assistant, about 25 – 40 minutes with the doctor, and then post-appointment scheduling before checkout,” Dr. Campbell explains. “During the appointment, I will review all imaging studies, like MRIs, X-rays, or CT scans, with my patients. Together, we’ll walk through all their symptoms, including when the pain started and how it feels to them. We’ll also discuss personal and family medical history to help narrow in on the cause of their pain.
“Once we have a clear understanding of what’s causing their symptoms, we can discuss a treatment plan that makes sense for them,” he says.
Sometimes, that plan will include surgery, but oftentimes it focuses on managing pain and symptoms. Dr. Campbell works closely with members of his team, which include pain management physicians and physical therapists.
“What is most important for me is to understand not only the source of pain but to get a clear idea of my patients’ goals. Not everyone wants or needs surgery. Sometimes it’s clear that surgery is needed, sometimes a more conservative approach is the best first step,” he shares.
“I will always keep my door open for every patient I see to come back with any questions or concerns, and certainly if their pain continues to get worse,” Dr. Campbell adds.
Conservative therapies for neck and back pain
There are many effective approaches that can help reduce pain and symptoms caused by a neck or back condition or issue. The most common include:
- Physical therapy. A physical therapist works closely with you to teach you stretches and exercises to strengthen the muscles that support your back (including leg and stomach muscles). They can also help show you how to modify workspaces and areas in your home to help relieve back pain during everyday activities.
- Anti-inflammatories. Often, back and neck pain can be caused by inflammation along your spine. Your provider can recommend a course of treatment to reduce inflammation, improve range of motion and relieve pain. This may include prescription anti-inflammatories, steroid injections or non-opioid pain medication, like muscle relaxers.
- Alternative therapies. One of the most frustrating things about back pain is that sometimes there isn’t a clear cause – or a clear treatment. When that’s the case, your doctor may recommend alternative therapies to address pain or to complement the care you’re already receiving. This may include acupuncture, yoga or chiropractic care.
- Pain management. A pain management physician does more than treat your pain or even the source of your symptoms. These doctors work closely with a team of specialists, which may include psychologists, physical therapists, dieticians and many others. Together, they’ll take a whole-person approach to your care, meaning they’ll help you find exercises, stretches and strategies to manage your pain and improve your quality of life.
If conservative and non-surgical approaches are not helpful, then your doctor will carefully review your past history and consider a surgical procedure if it’s the best path for your symptoms. If you are a candidate for surgery, your doctor will discuss in detail what you can expect from the surgery and why it’s worth considering.
“At our practice and within the Providence Neuroscience Institute, we are helping to lead the way toward a more concise decision-making platform that helps patients and doctors work together to determine who is a candidate for surgical intervention. We can do this by collecting patient-reported outcomes.”
“I understand that back and neck surgery can sound very scary. However, today’s advances have made spinal surgery very safe and effective. Your doctor should discuss the pros and cons of surgery, including why you’re a candidate,” Dr. Campbell shares.
“This is why it’s so valuable for patients to have a comprehensive and detailed first consult. We can look over the imaging results, which in many cases make it clear whether surgery will be needed or not. What’s most important is that you feel confident and comfortable with your surgeon’s recommendation and experience,” he finishes.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.
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