Time to Consider Back Surgery?

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Neck & Back Pain

The spine is complex — made up of 24 bones, vertebrae, ligaments, discs, joints, muscles, tendons and an intricate bundle of nerves that sends signals throughout the entire body — which is why spinal problems, even minor ones, can have a major impact on your quality of life.

Almost everyone can expect to experience an episode of back pain at some point in their life. Most episodes tend to improve within two weeks to three months.

For mild back pain there are some things you can do at home to reduce the pain:

  • Stay moving – like the rest of the body, the spine is meant to move. Keep doing daily activities, but don’t overdo it. Return to an active lifestyle slowly and avoid things that could make your pain worse. Bed rest for more than a couple of days can worsen your pain and lead to other problems, like stiff joints or muscle weakness.
  • Ice pack, heat pad – for the first 24 to 48 hours, try sticking with icing your back. Icing will help reduce inflammation. After about 48 hours, introduce heat to reduce stiffness.
  • Use over-the-counter pain medicines — acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol®) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., Advil®, Aleve®, aspirin and Motrin®) can help reduce pain and swelling. 

Working with your physician can help determine if these “conservative” treatment options are appropriate for your pain. Conservative treatment options are typically non-invasive and include physical therapy, activity modification, medications, or injections. It’s not until conservative treatment options fail and back pain or leg pain persists that spine surgery is considered.

The following are symptoms that signal it’s time to discuss other treatment options with your physician: 

  • Back pain is so severe that it hurts even when at rest or lying down
  • At-home treatment does not provide relief to severe pain
  • Loss of control over your bowels or bladder
  • Weakness, tingling or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Trouble standing or walking

Almost all surgeries on the spine are elective, meaning it’s the patient’s choice to elect to have surgery. The surgeon is responsible for explaining the risks and benefits of spine surgery. A spine surgeon can be either an orthopedic spine surgeon or a neurosurgeon that specializes in spine surgery.

Some important considerations for spine surgery: 

  • The amount of pain
  • The level of disability that the pain is causing
  • The length of time a patient has lived with and managed the pain
  • The treatment options patients have tried without finding relief from pain
  • The inability to function and complete everyday activities, like working, driving or completing simple tasks

Surgery is a joint decision between a patient and their surgeon. Patients living with chronic neck or back pain, particularly with radiating symptoms to the extremities, should consider a consult with a spine surgeon to learn more about treatment options. The Spine Center at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center offers a comprehensive program for patients needing spine surgery that strongly emphasizes patient education. For more information on spine surgery, call 1.800.MEMORIAL or visit memorialcare.org/lbspine.