Well, probably not, but it seems to be growing dramatically, especially in our senior age group. Someone said “back pain is the ulcers of the 21st century.”
As you all know, I’ve had back problems for some time. It included two surgeries; one that made things worse and the one last year that was very successful. In between, I did a fair amount of research and tried a number of alternatives to see if I could avoid surgery.
Not to be left out, super-fit wife Gabriele has now joined me with her own set of back problems. So we’ll try to offer some advice to any of you who have become members of ABC—the Aching Back Club.
At any given time, 31 million Americans might be suffering from back pain, struggling to complete even the simplest tasks without strain and difficulty. Back pain causes countless hours of missed work, and over $50 billion is spent each year on back-related issues.
For some, back pain means an occasional ache from the strain of overuse but others cope with it every day. Even simple backache can negatively impact nearly every aspect of a person’s life, stealing the joy and relaxation out of favorite activities. Until you have back pain, you don’t realize how much it can affect your life.
The lengths people go to in order to ease their simple back pain and restore a feeling of wellness is staggering, yet understandable. This may include frequent doctor or chiropractic visits, in-home devices, and—probably most common—the use of over-the-counter pain medications, including pain relief ointments, patches, and pills.
Let’s start by saying if you have experienced any pain in any part of the back, neck, buttocks or legs, the first thing you need to do is get a doctor to prescribe an MRI. You can try some of what we outline here to help relieve the discomfort, but the MRI is the window any practitioner needs to see where you’re at structurally and establish a baseline.
When you get an MRI, always ask for a copy of the film and a copy of the written report. You’re entitled to copies of all test reports and results.
Most times your MRI will show varying degrees of deterioration in the spinal column which is not unusual if you’ve lived this long. The key to treatment is the level of discomfort even more than the MRI.
Here’s an outline of potential aids to relieve your discomfort, in no particular order; and remember, everyone and their back is different. You have to experiment to find what works for you.
- Aleve (2) or Advil (6 to 8)
- Aleve and Trenadol*
- Lidoderm Patch*
- Voltaren Cream
- Over the counter creams like Australian Dream
- Methylprednisolone 4 mg (6-day tablets)*
- Physical therapy*
- Pain management MD
*need a prescription
Gabriele recounts her visit with the pain management doctor, who told her, “You have several options.” “I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘If I was your mother, what would you do for her?’” He answered, “I would try an injection.”
So Gabriele decided to do what he would do for his own mother. He gave her a prescription for physical therapy, which she will consider after the injection. When she asked why the physical therapy, he said, “To strengthen your abs.”
“I do yoga and already have pretty good abs, but it wouldn’t hurt to learn some new exercises. My pain,” she says, “before the injection (epidural), reached a level of four to six. I’ve always been active and I still want to hike with my daughters.”
Her MRI shows a degenerative disc problem with narrowing/stenosis of the canal. The last part is what she needed to be treated for; pain caused by this narrowing. There is no cure for this and it will probably get worse. The injections attempt to relieve the inflammation that is causing the pain. Eventually, she may need surgery to widen the canal so the nerves have room to move. With any luck, we’re hoping the time for surgery is far off.
(The epidural injection was very successful—no more discomfort. We’ll see how long it lasts.)
I haven’t mentioned surgery yet because you should try anything you can to avoid it. Until the back pain significantly interferes with your life and your functions, keep avoiding.
My second surgery was fusion to separate the disc from the nerve at L4/5, which was 100% successful in alleviating my pain; however, recovery from major surgery has been difficult.
If you’ve reached a point where you have to consider surgery, plan to visit at least three orthopods. Find out what kind of surgery they recommend—decompression, fusion, etc.—how long the surgery will take, and what is the expected recovery time.
There are several types of doctors who are spine specialists; orthopedic surgeons (orthopods), neuro surgeons, rheumatologists.
Nobody said it’ll be easy.
I tried everything I listed in the outline of alternatives with minimal or no success. The pain management doctor gave me quite a bit of relief for several years until that stopped working as well. When I couldn’t walk more than two or three minutes or stand still for 30 to 45 seconds, I knew I had to explore surgery.
Take heart! Even if we all had walked on all fours, we probably would still have some kind of problems.