We’ve Got Your Back: How to Keep Your Spine Healthy

Back Pain

By Raj Gala, MD, Orthopedic Spine Surgeon at ONS

Essentially every person will experience some sort of back pain in their life. The good news is usually back pain is a minor episode.

Back pain can arise if you put yourself in a position that your body wasn’t ready for. For example, you may have dropped an item and bent down in an odd position, picked up something extremely heavy, or decided to golf without warming up.

The most common back complaints are muscle pain, tightness and stiffness. Sometimes it can begin as a sharp pain that turns into a lingering dull ache.

It’s important to see a physician if you experience severe pain for over a week and/or if you develop any neurologic symptoms, such as numbness or weakness, in your backside or down your legs.

While disc herniations and fractures can affect all ages, the majority of people who experience arthritic back pain due to wear and tear are 50+ years old.

A common back condition is sciatica, which is pain (or even tingling and numbness) that radiates through your hips, backside and down your leg into your calf. Treatment depends on the cause, which is often a pinched nerve in the lumbar spine. Typically, sciatica can be treated conservatively with stretching, targeted physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medicine, nerve medication, etc. If pain still persists, injections are an available option. Surgery is rare as most people feel relief with conservative treatment.

Most of my patients have isolated back pain that can be treated non-surgically. At ONS, we have a team of physicians highly experienced in back and spine conditions including spine surgeons like myself and non-operative physiatrists. It’s important to be seen by a specialist who is trained in spine and can administer specific motor/nerve testing and thorough physical examinations to get to the root of the issue. Unless the patient is experiencing lasting severe pain or neurologic symptoms, nearly all are started on conservative treatment for approximately 6 weeks.

Patients can treat their back pain at home by staying active. In the past, physicians would prescribe weeks of bed rest for back pain – now we encourage people to keep moving to prevent stiffness.
• Incorporate exercises like lying on the ground, stretching your legs and bringing knees up to chest
• Add core exercises to your routine
• Apply heat, which is much more effective than ice
• Try a regimen of anti-inflammatory medication

So when is back surgery necessary? The main indication is nerve pain and weakness, including a foot drop. That’s usually a clear sign that surgery is needed to free up the pinched nerve. Sometimes significant wear and tear can lead to surgery. Stenosis, which is typically in the older population, can be treated surgically but it’s still an elective procedure. Many people can live with stenosis or treat it conservatively with injections. Spinal deformities usually require surgery as the spine needs to be reconstructed.

I believe spine health and overall health go hand in hand. Two important ways to stay healthy and prevent back pain are to quit smoking and lose weight. Smoking has been shown to advance disc degeneration, while carrying extra weight can increase wear and tear on the back. If you are non-smoker at a healthy weight who wants to be proactive about your back health, you can incorporate core strengthening into your routine. Twenty minutes a day of core exercise can help strengthen the muscles around your discs and keep pressure off of them.

About Dr. Raj Gala

Dr. Gala is an orthopedic spine surgeon at Orthopaedic & Neurosurgery Specialists (ONS), specializing in the surgical treatment of spinal disorders such as stenosis, disc herniations, spondylolisthesis, spinal deformity, spinal trauma and tumors. To schedule an appointment, please call (203) 744-9700 or click schedule appointment today.