Approximately 80% of us will experience back or neck pain at some point over the course of our lives. In fact, general back and neck pain is one of the most common reasons for a doctor visit. Fortunately, common back or neck pain typically dissipates and lessens on its own, causing only minor discomfort and inconvenience. Especially if you employ at-home care such as stretching, using heating and cooling pads and practicing correct posture, you will be more likely to self-heal. However, back or neck pain is not a condition that should be taken lightly. It can quickly progress and lead to more serious conditions.
Causes of back or neck pain
It can be caused by any number of underlying conditions, such as a degenerated disc, disc herniation or more serious issues such as spinal stenosis or a spinal tumor. Before panicking about back pain, it’s important to remember that its causes vary, as do treatment options for it. At Polaris Spine & Neurosurgery, we’re skilled at treating all levels of back pain and spine related conditions, no matter how simple or complex. We take back pain seriously and understand the debilitating effects it can have on our patients. We also believe that other care options should be explored before resorting to an operation, so our team evaluates every possible cause and treatment.
When do I see a doctor about my back or neck pain?
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s recommended you seek medical advice.
- If you have suffered from back pain for longer than one month
- If your pain is persistent or acute
- If you wake from sleep because of your pain
- If your pain moves into the legs, arms, or other extremities
- If you’ve suffered trauma and are experiencing serious back pain as a result
All of these reasons are good cause to consult a specialist about your discomfort. At Polaris, we help pinpoint the underlying cause of your pain, and our team works with you to tailor a wellness plan for your specific needs.
As we age, discs can dry out. Also, the vertebrae and ligaments (tough bands connecting the vertebrae) lose their flexibility and thicken. This degeneration is normal but becomes painful when the dried-out discs pinch a spinal nerve or the spinal cord. Most patients with disc degenerative disc disease will experience mild to moderate continuous, but generally tolerable pain that flares up occasionally. These symptoms include pain that is centralized and often described as a painful ache, among other complaints.
Spinal stenosis is a condition defined by the narrowing of the spine, in one or multiple areas, and many patients who suffer from it have experienced some form of injury in the past. Spinal stenosis can also be the result of degeneration naturally associated with the aging process, which we all experience. It only presents a problem or need for medical treatment if pain, structural instability or compression of the spinal cord or nerve roots occurs.
Types of Spinal Stenosis
The type of spinal stenosis a patient suffers from is also a defining factor in his or her treatment. Some of the basic types of this condition include:
- Congenital stenosis: a narrowing that is present when the child is born and can progress into spinal stenosis later in life
- Foraminal stenosis: this occurs with the passageways housing the nerves become constricted and narrow
- Degenerative spinal stenosis: this is typically diagnosed in older adults and is a result of aging on the bones, such as degenerative disc disease or osteoporosis
- Central spinal stenosis: a narrowing of the spinal canal
Identification and Treatment of Spinal Stenosis
Exact diagnosis is essential in identifying the affected area and prescribing proper treatment as many different conditions can stem from spinal stenosis. Radiculopathy, irritation of a nerve root; myelopathy, a condition resulting from spinal cord injury; as well as neurogenic claudication, which manifests as pain or weakness in the legs, can all be caused by the narrowing of the spinal canal.
Disc herniation occurs when the exterior wall of the herniated disc becomes compromised, tears or ruptures. Interior matter can then escape the disc, causing pressure on the nerves and spinal cord. The discomfort that results in and around the area of herniation ranges from mild to severe, and if left untreated, it can progress quickly. Your thoracic discs, located in the middle of the back, are less likely to herniate because they are given more support and stability from the attached rib cage. The cervical discs, located in the neck, and the lumbar discs, located in the lower back, are often more susceptible to herniation because they don’t have the benefit of added internal support.
Symptoms of Herniated Discs
A range of symptoms can occur because of the pressure a herniated disc creates. Some of these include:
- Muscle weakness
- A numb sensation
- Pain around the area of herniation
- The inability to execute normal range of motion
Types of Herniated Discs
Cervical disc herniation is often identified after a patient experiences pain in the neck or between the shoulder blades. Numbness or tingling in the hands and arms can also occur. Thoracic disc herniation is less common but requires treatment because it can threaten compression of the spinal cord. Perhaps the most common type of herniation is in the lumbar spine. Typically, lumbar herniations result in sciatic nerve irritation (sciatica), which may cause buttock, hip, leg and foot pain, as well as numbness, tingling and sometimes weakness.
Spinal instability occurs when the structural ability of the spine to bear weight and resist deformity becomes compromised for one reason or another. From birth-related problems to trauma and from degenerative spinal conditions to tumors, there are numerous causes of spinal instability and the problems, as well as pain that typically accompany it.
Treatment Options for Spinal Instability
We offer an array of treatments for spinal instability at Polaris Spine & Neurosurgery, and depending on your condition and level of severity, we’ll customize a treatment plan specifically for you. Common options for correcting spinal instability include artificial disc replacement and spinal fusion; however, there are other procedures that are viable options, as well.
Scoliosis is a spinal condition that manifests as a sideways, abnormal curving of the spine. It typically occurs in younger children—often during growth spurts—and if detected early, it can be closely monitored, treated and contained as a somewhat mild condition. It can, however, be a symptom of a more serious, underlying condition, such as muscular dystrophy, for example. There are a few visible, outward indicators that someone might have scoliosis. If you note unevenness in the height of the shoulders or the balance of the hips; if one shoulder blade appears to protrude further or sit at a noticeably different angle than the other; or, in severe cases, if the spine continues to twist and rotate, it can affect the positioning of the ribs. At Polaris, our experts use the most advanced imaging technology to detect scoliosis in its earliest stages. Treatment options range from braces to corrective surgery, but we’ll explore every alternative before deciding which is best for you.
As with other spinal injuries and conditions, there are different types of spinal fractures that can occur. Your surgeon will examine the vertebral body from all three sections, back, middle and front. A spinal fracture is literally defined by the breaking of one or more bones in the spine, and the severity of this injury can vary greatly. There are, however, several symptoms patients should be able to recognize.
- The most common symptom is abrupt pain that becomes more severe with movement
- The fracture site may swell and feel pressured
- Patients may have muscle weakness, a numb sensation or tingling in the extremities
- Severe spinal fractures may cause a decrease in height, curvature of the spine, compromised balance, loss of bladder control, and in extreme cases, paralysis
Some of the different types of spinal fractures include compression fractures, which are among the most stable and may take on a wedge-like appearance; chance fractures, which are typically caused by severe trauma separating the vertebrae; traverse process spinal fractures, which are defined by the spiny, bony protrusions from the vertebrae breaking; and burst fractures, where pieces of bone can spread, threatening the cord itself. Because spinal fractures, all types, present threats to the patient, it’s important to begin testing, defining the injury and working toward the best treatment plan as soon as possible following the accident.
Back pain is the most immediate and common symptom of spinal tumors, but it’s also a common condition that can be caused by several less severe conditions. Like tumors elsewhere in the body, spinal tumors can be benign or malignant. Other symptoms can manifest as a result of spinal tumors, and early detection—as with any type of tumor—is important. Some of these symptoms include radiating back pain; a lessening or loss of sensation in the extremities; lowered pain sensitivity, especially to hot and cold stimuli; leg weakness and difficulty walking; less control over your bowels; and to varying degrees, if the tumors go untreated, a patient may experience paralysis in different parts of the body.
Spinal tumor treatment options
There are as many treatment options for spinal tumors as there are symptoms. If the tumor is caught before symptoms manifest, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication and monitoring. Other treatment options include: magnetic resonance imaging; stereotactic radiosurgery; traditional radiation therapy; chemotherapy; as well as surgery to remove the tumor. In most cases, a combination of these will be used, and if malignant, or cancerous, extra steps will be taken to eradicate the cancer potential spread of the illness to other parts of the body.
Spondylolysis is often attributed to overexertion and use by athletes, especially younger athletes. The physical strains put on the body during sports such as gymnastics, football and weightlifting are immense, and this added stress can lead to severe lower back pain. Spondylolysis is a stress fracture that most commonly affects the vertebra in the lower back, specifically the fifth lumbar. The stress fracture makes the bone weaker and less able to hold firm to its proper position, often leading to slippage. If spondylolysis goes untreated and the disc is allowed to move substantially, spondylolisthesis can develop putting surrounding nerves at risk. Surgery is often required if the condition progresses to this point.
Spondylolysis may also be attributed to genetics.
If, for example, your vertebral bone is thin or your family is prone to sporadic yet substantial growth spurts, both of which can be causes of this condition and subsequent lower back pain. There are surgical and non-surgical treatment options for spondylolysis. These can include a temporary or permanent cessation from whatever activity is likely causing the condition; an anti-inflammatory medication regimen; back braces for added support; as well as surgeries such as internal bracing or spinal fusion. Of course, surgery is only turned to after all other avenues have been explored.