If you’ve never experienced back or neck pain, there’s a good chance that, at some point, you will.
“As humans, we’re susceptible to neck and back pain because of the way we walk upright,” said Dr. J. Alex Sielatycki, a spine surgeon in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “Almost every adult at some point in their life will have some sort of neck or back pain.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to live with chronic pain. By maximizing spine health, staying nimble and mobile, and intervening when necessary, you can help lessen and address issues.
Stay mobile to prevent back and neck pain
Some issues are unavoidable due to genetics or trauma, but regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy body weight all play a role in prevention. Sielatycki also stresses the importance of one specific type of exercise.
“I tell patients across the board that regular, low-impact aerobic exercise is one of the best things you can do,” Sielatycki said. “That, in combination with maintaining good flexibility by warming up and doing gentle stretching, can do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to preventing back problems later in life.”
That’s because the spine is made up of a complex series of joints. Stop moving, and the surrounding ligaments and connective tissues become stiff, predisposing the spine to injury.
Be wary of how much time you spend sitting: hours at the computer or on devices may cause neck and back problems.
And don’t overdo an exercise program: lifting too much weight or putting too much force on the spine may result in injury.
When to seek help for back and neck pain
“Most people will know intrinsically when a problem is more than a minor ache or pain,” Sielatycki said.
For instance, if you spend an afternoon gardening, it’s not surprising if you’re sore the next day. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, along with rest and gentle stretching, can help.
But if the pain is more persistent or intense, or if you experience neurological symptoms such as pain radiating down the arms or numbness and tingling, seek help.
“Reach out for evaluation sooner rather than later,” Sielatycki said. “Numbness and tingling are an indication there could be a neural compression that won’t go away on its own.”
Treatment options for managing back and neck pain
Typically, the first step in treating neck or back pain is anti-inflammatory medication along with physical therapy and stretching. When that’s not enough, advanced imaging may be done. Depending on the issue, injections such as nerve blocks can help.
“In many cases, those steps help calm the episode down and get the patient where they want to be,” Sielatycki said.
As a final resort, surgery may be considered. When looking at options, Sielatycki encourages patients to follow three principles: have a clear goal in mind, don’t do more surgery than what’s necessary, and avoid spinal fusions when possible.
“You want to clearly define the goal you’re trying to achieve with surgery,” Sielatycki said. “A surgeon can give advice on which techniques and options can achieve that goal with the least amount of trauma and recovery time.”
While spinal fusion might be a good option, Sielatycki encourages patients to consider alternatives if possible.
The spine is made to move, so fusing segments strains the rest of the spine, which may cause issues down the road.
“It’s important to ask the surgeon why fusion is necessary and if there’s another alternative that could achieve your goal,” Sielatycki said.
For instance, minimally invasive techniques to decompress nerves, as well as joint or disc replacements, may relieve pain symptoms with less long-term trauma.
“It could be more durable to do a fusion, but you should talk through risks and decide based on your goals,” Sielatycki said. “For someone who wants to stay mobile and active, we may push the envelope and not do a fusion.”