Help for Neck and Back Pain
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re going to experience neck or back pain at some point in your life.
Some estimates say upwards of 85 percent of people will have neck or back pain in their lifetime, whether the result of activity, trauma or age-related conditions. The likelihood only increases after age 40.
“As we get older, on the other side of 40 for sure, most of us get to a point where we realize our neck or back is not what it was when we were 16,” says Dr. Mir Ali, board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon with Morris Hospital Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. “I think most of us learn to live with it and manage it as best we can.”
But the question that next arises is: At what point do neck and back symptoms require help from a primary care doctor? Or even an orthopedic spine surgeon?
When to Seek Help
The first sign medical help is needed for neck or back pain can be as simple as having lingering or reoccurring pain significant enough that traditional treatments or over-the-counter medications provide little to no relief. Other indications of needing to see a doctor include having to miss work due to the pain or experiencing numbness and tingling.
Dr. Ali says more concerning red flags start with shooting pain down the arms or legs, weakness in the upper or lower extremities, bowel or bladder problems, or having trouble walking.
“The areas of the spine are very delicate areas,” he says. “The spine obviously controls your whole body, so there are things that really worry us as doctors. If someone has any of those symptoms, they need to see their primary care doctor right away, their spine doctor right away, or they can go to the emergency room.”
Advancements in Treatment
While Dr. Ali hopes people seek a doctor before severe symptoms set in, he is concerned that fears or misconceptions may keep them away. For instance, while his specialty is called orthopedic spine surgery, the vast majority of his patients are at least initially treated without surgical intervention.
Depending on the patient’s condition, treatments can range from physical therapy, to medications for short-term pain relief, to cortisone injections, and as a last resort, surgery. Dr. Ali believes his approach to care delivers two essential components to his patients – options and education – so they feel they have evaluated all possibilities before surgery.
“At least in the short run, 75 to 90 percent of our patients are able to avoid surgery,” Dr. Ali says. “For someone to come in to visit a spine specialist, obviously the pain has gotten to a point where it’s affecting their daily lives and their quality of life, but we really work up from the least invasive approach, saving surgery as a last resort.”
While the least invasive approaches can help in many situations, there are some conditions that cannot be truly resolved without surgical intervention. But even that prospect shouldn’t be feared, according to Dr. Ali.
A procedure like anterior cervical fusion for arthritic/herniated discs in the neck is typically a one-hour, outpatient surgery that provides patients immediate relief and results. Another procedure — lumbar fusion for severe deterioration of lumbar discs — has advanced from being a 6-hour surgery with a week-long hospital stay to now being a one-hour surgery with the possibility of going home the same day.
“Technology is always improving,” Dr. Ali says. “There are surgeries we do on 80- to 90-year-olds which used to take six hours 10 years ago. The fact is, we can do that surgery in an hour and a half today with less anesthesia so the patient can get up and go home the same day or the next day. It’s quite remarkable.”
Need an Appointment?
If you are experiencing neck or back pain and are in need of a consultation, call 815-942-4875 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Ali in the Morris, Ottawa or Joliet office. For more information, visit www.morrishospital.org/orthopedics.