Neck and back pain are leading causes of disability in the United States. Fortunately for those who suffer, there is an increasing number of treatments available, ranging from non-surgical therapies to state-of-the-art, minimally invasive procedures.
The first step, experts say, is pinpointing the exact cause of the problem.
“The source can range from herniated discs and compression fractures to strains, sprains or plain old arthritis,” says Oliver Tannous, MD, an orthopaedic spine surgeon specializing in state-of-the-art, minimally invasive and motion preservation techniques at MedStar Orthopaedic Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “But regardless of the cause, one thing is pretty much the same: Patients are often in debilitating pain, and unable to do the things they want, like pick up their grandchildren or drive to the store. It affects their overall happiness and quality of life.”
Different diagnoses and symptoms require different treatment plans. Dr. Tannous believes the journey to a pain-free state should start with the most conservative interventions possible.
“Since a sprained muscle explains acute neck or back problems for the majority of patients, I’ll first recommend physical therapy, or prescribe anti-inflammatory medication,” he says. “It is remarkable how a short course of physical therapy can improve strength, flexibility, and posture and often this is all it takes to get better.”
For those who still experience pain, interventional pain management techniques such as steroid injections or facet joint ablations often do the trick. Surgery is only considered after less invasive treatments have been tried, and failed. Even then, there’s good news.
“Spine surgery today is vastly different than it was 10 to15 years ago,” Dr. Tannous explains. “We use advanced surgical techniques, requiring smaller incisions, and resulting in shorter hospital stays, faster recovery, less post-surgical pain and, ultimately, better outcomes.”
Recent advances in surgical techniques include cervical (neck) disc replacement using a mobile implant rather than fusion to preserve range of motion in the neck. When a fusion is needed, it can now be done with incisions an inch and a half long. For older patients with compression fractures that don’t resolve on their own, another new treatment uses a needle rather than surgery to inject cement directly into the spine, often eliminating pain immediately. And, for disc herniation, the minimally invasive approach Dr. Tannous employs uses tubes, requiring only tiny incisions.
With so many new technologies available, people needn’t suffer from back pain, limit their quality of life, or worry about treatment.
“We’re in this together,” says Dr. Tannous. “My job is to find a way to solve your problem in the best way possible—with or without surgery.”