The Last Step in Chronic Back Pain Relief
I suppose it's understandable that we spine surgeons get labeled as surgery peddlers. After all, it is the life's work that we've chosen. But for the vast majority of patients, surgery is the very last step most ethical surgeons recommend in order to provide chronic back pain relief.
If you're dealing with the symptoms of chronic back pain, you're not alone. It's a major cause of disability in the United States and throughout the world. It is also a problem that isn't always easy to solve. But that doesn't have to mean surgery in every case. In fact, most people who experience chronic back pain will find relief through another source.
Lifestyle Modification: One of the first places I recommend starting on the road to chronic back pain relief is lifestyle modification. This can include losing weight (for those who are overweight or obese), smoking cessation, and exercise.
It's important to point out that patients need to give these lifestyle modification efforts a legitimate attempt over a long enough period of time. I know that's difficult to hear when you're experiencing severe pain.
Though it can be a tough pill to swallow for patients, giving weight loss a try for six months before even discussing surgery isn't an uncommon or ineffective recommendation from a spine surgeon. As surgeons, we don't make these recommendations because we want to be cruel. We make them because we know that beginning with the least invasive option first is in the patient's best interest and THAT is why we are in this field.
Alternative Therapies: From chiropractic care and massage to yoga and Pilates, I've had patients from around the world who will tell you that they benefitted from such "alternative therapies."
I wouldn't say that every treatment option that falls within the "alternative" category is right for every patient. But I do believe that certain methods can be right for certain people.
If you're experiencing debilitating back pain and you're interested in a treatment option you think might fall into the "alternative" category, talk to your doctor about it. More often than not, if it is a legitimate treatment method that has some supportive clinical data to back it and it is an appropriate option for your specific concern, your doctor won't steer you away from it. In fact, it may be exactly the prescription you need for long-term relief.
Medication: From inflammation reduction to general pain relief, sometimes the right medication and dosage can be enough to banish a particularly troublesome back pain episode and get you back on the path to spine health.
The key is a knowledgeable doctor who can recommend a course of treatment that doesn't leave you trading one set of symptoms for another. In essence, medication can be the right course of action for chronic back pain, provided it leaves you with the ability to live the life you want.
But if the medication dosage required for back pain relief is so strong that you can't achieve daily function—working, driving a car, or walking, for example—then the trade-off isn't worth the temporary pain relief.
Surgery: When surgery is the recommended step for chronic pain relief, it is with every conceivable and appropriate attempt at the above mentioned options first.
Any type of surgery, be it spine or otherwise, involves risk. We surgeons take those risks very seriously. For the overwhelming majority of us that are in this profession for the right reasons—to help patients—we'd like to avoid surgical risk altogether when possible.
But when a patient's quality of life is threatened and after other methods to correct the pain have failed, we don't want suffering to continue needlessly, either. We make the surgery recommendation with a great deal of thoughtful consideration for each patient's unique set of circumstances in mind. It's part of an oath we took back in medical school and one we continue to take seriously each and every day.