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Spine and Back Health

Back Basics: Identifying and Eliminating Chronic Back Pain

The statistics are staggering. About 80-90% of Americans experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. Many people with chronic lower back pain are working, and lose productivity on the job as a direct result. In fact, it is estimated by national statistics that back pain costs roughly $100 billion a year in lost earnings, and lower back pain is the No. 2 cause of visits to physicians.

Types of Back Pain

The most common types of back pain are:

Lumbar pain

Lumbar, or lower back pain, is typically located at and above the waist in the middle of the back or spine. The pain can be directly linked to prolonged stretches or sitting, standing, or lifting.

Sciatica

Sciatica refers to sharp, stabbing pain that starts in the buttock and travels down the leg. It can often include numbness, "pins and needles", and/or even weakness of the leg. Sciatica is one of the most common forms of pain caused by compression of the spinal nerves, and the leg pain often feels much worse than the back pain. Sciatica is actually a symptom and not a diagnosis. While the most common cause of sciatica is a herniated (or "slipped") disc, many other conditions can cause this type of pain.

Relieving the Pain

If you or a loved one suffers chronic back pain, there are options to relieve the pain in the form of:

The first and best step for anyone with back pain is to establish an accurate medical history and determine what factors may have been, or still are, contributing to the pain. If you have experienced persistent back pain for more than two months, ask your primary care physician if it's time for you to see a spine specialist.

Visiting a Spine Specialist

Through careful evaluation and diagnostic tests, a spine specialist can determine the correct method of treatment including:

Today, many surgical spine procedures can be performed as a minimally invasive surgery, resulting in reduced pain and a quicker recovery. These procedures allow the surgeon to accomplish the same goals but are done through very small cuts in the skin, sometimes as small as ¾ of an inch, and cause much less injury to the back muscles. Many of these surgeries can now be done as outpatients, allowing the patient to return home the same day as their operation.

Don't Delay Treatment

Regardless of what type of back pain you suffer from, one aspect remains constant: If untreated, chronic aches and back pain can continue to follow you throughout your life. If mundane household chores or tasks at work lead to recurring pain on a daily basis, it's important for you to know that options are available.

The vast majority of lower back pain conditions will get better with time and can be addressed with conservative treatments.  However, it is important to note that there are some diagnoses that indicate the need for surgery to enable relief from pain and better enjoyment of day-to-day activities.

This article was originally published in the July 2006 issue of Smart Health - Northeast Ohio's Health and Wellness Magazine Just For Women, and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2006.

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Last Reviewed: Oct 12, 2011

David J Hart, MD David J Hart, MD
Associate Professor of Neurosurgery
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University