Back pain: When it's time to call a specialist

Gloria M. Dagenais, RN
Providence Brain and Spine Institute

Of all the reasons to see a doctor, back pain is one of the most common, affecting four out of five people at some point in their lives.

Aging is a primary reason for back pain. As we age, the protective tissue covering the vertebral joints deteriorates, and the disks between the vertebrae wear due to osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis also may cause bone outgrowths on the spine, or “spurs,” that may put pressure on the nerve roots and spinal cord. This deterioration can cause pain or numbness not only in the back, but also in the extremities.

Osteoporosis, another common condition associated with aging, causes weakness in the matrix of the bone. Although commonly associated with women, osteoporosis also can be experienced by a small percentage of men.

Risks for developing osteoporosis sometimes involve lifestyle choices, such as smoking, alcohol abuse, physical inactivity or a diet low in calcium. Or they involve factors that can’t be modified, such as menopause, family history or race. (Asians and Caucasians stand a greater chance of developing osteoporosis than other groups.)

Most people who experience back pain will improve with home treatments, such as ice and heat, over-the-counter medications, rest, exercise and bracing. If pain does not improve within two to three weeks, however, it may be time to seek the care of a specialist.
Consider consulting a specialist immediately if back pain is the result of an injury; if the patient presents with weakness or numbness in one or both legs; if the patient suddenly has difficulty controlling bladder or bowel function; or if the patient is experiencing fever, chills, sweating, nausea or unintentional weight loss in addition to back pain.

Providence Brain and Spine Institute care teams involve neurologists, neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurse specialists, physiatrists and rehabilitation therapists, who collaborate on a patient’s individualized treatment plan.

The institute embraces a philosophy of conservative therapy, offering nonsurgical treatment options that include physical and rehabilitation therapy, pain-relieving injections and non-narcotic medication therapies.

If the specialist and the patient determine that surgery is required, the institute provides advanced imaging technology and surgical techniques to ensure that patients achieve positive outcomes and improved quality of life.

To learn more about our program and physicians, or to request patient educational material, call 503-216-1055.

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