The debilitating effects of chronic back pain disrupt the lives of millions of Americans in numerous ways. If you’re suffering with back or spine issues, you already know this. But whether your pain is new or you’ve dealt with it for years, the experts at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center’s Spine Care Center can help.

The center’s team of surgeons, nurses and therapists specializes in minimally-invasive and open spine surgeries to correct abnormalities. They provide comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation focused on early returns to the activities you love.

The Causes of Pain

Everyday wear-and-tear, overuse or various levels of injury can all lead to back problems. Injury is the most common cause of back pain, often happening when you use your back in an activity you don’t do very often. In addition to muscles, issues can occur with the bones, discs, ligaments, tendons and nerves in your back.

Dr. Joel R. Hoekema, MD, orthopedic spine surgeon at PeaceHealth. Photo credit: Mark Turner

And not everyone’s back pain or injury is created equal. Especially, says Dr. Joel Hoekema, when it comes to aging.

“Younger patients tend to be more likely to have a disc herniation, or a muscle-strain-type of injury,” says Hoekema, an orthopedic spine surgeon at PeaceHealth. “Older patients tend to have a degenerative spine, with degenerative arthritic conditions, and spinal stenosis (narrowing).”

Other factors for back pain include family health history, excessive sitting, heavy lifting, and degenerative diseases like osteoporosis. Sometimes lower back pain can travel beyond your back, affecting your legs with symptoms like pain, numbness, or tingling.

Treatment

Most back pain is treated non-operatively. A patient’s primary care physician generally handles initial back pain evaluations, as well as referrals for physical therapy, chiropractic care, steroid injections, anti-inflammatory treatments and, of course, instructions for rest.

There are numerous causes—and solutions—for back pain. Photo courtesy: PeaceHealth

Many back problems will resolve themselves in one to four weeks. During that time, it’s okay to continue regular activities as your back heals, but try to avoid heavy lifting or activities that could make your back pain worse. Walking is especially effective for helping the lower back, keeping blood flowing and helping muscles move. You might also take over-the-counter medication to ease whatever pain you have, and if needed, get a prescription from your doctor for something stronger.

But when back issues persist or worsen, tests like X-rays, CT and MRI scans may be used. Depending upon what’s found, surgery options can then be discussed.

“If you have nerve compression from either disk herniation or spinal stenosis, or slippage of the vertebrae, that’s something that can be treated operatively,” Hoekema says.

Surgical procedures include the microdiscectomy, where surgeons use diagnostic imaging tools to view discs and nerves. A small incision is then made for the removal of herniated disc material that’s putting pressure on a nerve. The procedure commonly lasts about an hour, and doesn’t usually require a hospital stay.

The PeaceHealth Spine Care Center offers comprehensive treatment options for back and neck issues. Photo courtesy: PeaceHealth

The laminectomy or laminotomy is a one- to two-hour procedure used when vertebrae has caused narrowing of the spinal canal and surrounding nerves. Part of the vertebrae itself is removed, releasing the pressure. This is another outpatient procedure for most, although Hoekema says some elderly patients may require an overnight hospital stay.

Surgical fusion procedures are used to fuse together unstable or misaligned vertebrae. These procedures are more extensive multi-hour surgeries, and usually require a day or two in the hospital afterward.

In addition, the aforementioned procedures can also be done on the cervical (neck) area of the spinal column, along with the option of replacing worn or damaged cervical discs with artificial ones or performing an Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF) procedure.  

Preventative Care

Whether you’ve managed to avoid back issues so far, or are worried about past problems returning, what can you do to mitigate back pain potential?

Exercise is one of the best ways to both prevent and heal lower back pain issues. Photo courtesy: PeaceHealth

First off: exercise.

“It’s always good to have a regular fitness program,” Hoekema says. “Core exercises, daily aerobics at least three to five times a week. Walking is probably one of the best things for helping to prevent back problems.”

In addition, you should practice good posture when sitting, standing and walking. As a rule of thumb, your ears, shoulders and hips should be in a straight line. It can also help to sleep on your side.

Maintaining a healthy weight is also important to prevent back pain. And perhaps most obviously, don’t lift anything that’s too heavy for you. If you must lift something, or do frequent bending and reaching, do it the right way. Also make sure you have a chair with good back support if sitting for long periods, and be sure to take regular breaks to stretch and walk around.

So, the next time back pain strikes, remember that it doesn’t have to keep you from living your life. Back issues are highly treatable in their many forms, and along with your doctor and the folks at the PeaceHealth Spine Care Center, you can determine the course of action that’s right for you.

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