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Relief for Your Aching Neck and Back

Alen Nourian, MD Pain Management One of the most common medical issues—affecting millions of Americans of all ages and walks of life—is neck and back pain. Depending on its severity, this type of pain can range from mildly annoying to debilitating, robbing a person of the ability to work, move around and enjoy life.

There are a variety of potential sources for the pain you feel in your neck or back. Injuries or stress to the muscles, for instance, may produce back pain. Spinal cord compression is another common source of pain in the neck and/or back.

Spinal injuries fall into two broad categories: traumatic and non-traumatic. Traumatic spine injuries are the result of an event that causes damage to the spinal cord. Non-traumatic spine injuries are caused by compression, loss of blood flow or disruption to the function of the spinal cord. With either type of injury, you may experience weakness, loss of sensation and/or paralysis below the point where the injury occurred.

With neck or back pain, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether to try to treat it at home or seek medical help. Typically, if you take an anti-inflammatory medication like Motrin (as long as your stomach can tolerate it), you should see improvement within 1-1/2 to two weeks. Contrary to popular belief, you should not stay in bed for more than one day; it’s important to remain active during this time.

You should make an appointment to see your doctor if any of these situations occur: The pain doesn’t go away within two weeks, the pain gets worse instead of better, you experience pain in your arms and/or legs that gets worse, or you find yourself losing control of your bowels or bladder. If you lose all control of your bowels or bladder, skip the doctor and go straight to the emergency room.

If you already suffer from chronic neck or back pain, there are some things you can do to keep from making the situation worse. One of the most important is to get regular exercise, emphasizing movement that strengthens your core muscles, including the abdominals. Activities such as walking and swimming can help. Being overweight can put strain on your back, so losing even five to 10 pounds can make a big difference. If you’re an older adult, you should undergo testing to make sure you don’t have osteoporosis.

Regular exercise and healthy eating can also prevent back or neck pain from starting in the first place—which is the best possible scenario. If you do manual labor, make sure you know the proper technique for avoiding injury. Your supervisor or your human resources department may be able to help you with this.

If you do need medical help for your pain, your doctor will likely ask you to have an X-ray and/or MRI exam, both of which enable him or her to evaluate the condition of your back or neck and recommend a course of treatment.

Most physicians start treatment conservatively, with anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy. If you have a herniated disc or arthritis, you may need epidural steroid injections to help with the pain. If these approaches fail, your doctor may discuss the option of surgery with you.

Back surgery is a fearful thought for many people, who remember family members or friends who have gone through back surgery in the past, with a long and challenging recovery period. The good news is that modern technology and techniques have greatly improved this type of surgery over the last 10 to 15 years, enabling patients to recover faster and with better results.

One of the newer approaches that have revolutionized back and neck surgery is minimally invasive surgery. With this type of surgery, incisions are much smaller, and there is less blood loss, less tissue damage, faster recovery and a shorter hospital stay. In many cases, patients are able to walk out of the hospital within a day of surgery and resume their normal activities much sooner than was possible in the past.

Back and neck pain should not be a problem you just have to live with. Whether it’s home treatment or help from a physician or surgeon, there are many options to get relief.

Alen Nourian, MD, is a member of Ventura Orthopedics Medical Group, where he specializes in the management of spinal disorders and practices general orthopedics. He is also on the medical staff at Simi Valley Hospital.