Back pain is a common problem that affects many people — an estimated 80 percent of adults in America will experience back pain at some point, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can get in the way of things that matter to you, like your job, time with family, sports or hobbies.
Fortunately, back pain can often be resolved with noninvasive treatments. Back pain treatments may include medication, injections and physical therapy. Only a small number of people suffering from back pain require surgery. A fellowship-trained orthopedic doctor can help determine a course of treatment for your specific condition.
Diagnosing back pain
Before determining a course of treatment, your doctor will likely employ various diagnostic methods to determine what's causing your pain. Some common causes of back pain include:
- Disc herniation
- Strain of the muscles or ligaments
- Curvature of the spine
First, you will likely undergo a physical exam that includes discussing issues that may have contributed to your back pain and your symptoms. Symptoms of back pain may include aching, sharp or stabbing pain, pain that radiates down a leg, and difficulty doing motions like bending, lifting or walking.
Diagnostic tests may then be ordered if more information is needed. Those may include:
- X-Rays: Can reveal problems like broken bones, arthritis, degenerative conditions or curvature of the spine.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Can determine whether herniated discs are an issue, as well as problems with muscles, nerves, soft tissues, tendons or ligaments.
- Electromyography (EMG): Can expose nerve compression resulting from herniated discs or other issues.
Other tests may include bone scans or bloodwork, according to the Mayo Clinic. Once your orthopedic specialist has determined the cause of your pain, they can determine an appropriate treatment regimen.
Common courses of treatment
Depending on the source of your pain, back pain treatments could range from medications and home exercises to spinal surgery, though that last option is a rare case.
Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers may be prescribed by your doctor. Those could include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — like ibuprofen, which is found in Advil and Motrin IB or naproxen sodium — which is found in Aleve. In other cases, muscle relaxers, topical creams or a temporary prescription for narcotics may be supplied.
Injections: Injections of corticosteroids — or cortisone — may also provide pain relief. Cortisone is an anti-inflammatory medication that can provide pain relief from several weeks to months. If you've had an injection for back pain that didn't provide relief, it may not have been injected in the correct spot or it may not have been done in tandem with other treatments for back pain. Injections for relief from back pain would typically be prescribed alongside a regimen of physical therapy.
Physical therapy (PT): In many cases, orthopedic physical therapy is one of the most important types of possible back pain treatments you can get. A physical therapist may use manipulation and prescribe a regimen of exercise. PT can help improve your strength and how you move in order to reduce your pain and improve range of motion in the longer term.
In rare instances, spinal surgery may be one of the back pain treatments your orthopedist suggests if other treatments fail. Talk to your orthopedic doctor about the common types of spine surgery, which include:
- Laminectomy/ laminotomy
- Spinal decompression and fusion
- Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion
In cases where spine surgery is needed, your doctor will help you prepare appropriately to ensure the quickest recovery. The best outcomes from surgery occur when patients follow pre-surgery instructions and comply with post-operative care regimens.