Published: Mar. 27, 2009
Updated: Mar. 21, 2011
Of the millions of Americans who say they live with pain every day, the most common source of pain is in the low back. Winston Parris, MD, says the back, by design, is the perfect place for chronic pain to start. “The good Lord made us, tragically, on two legs,” he says.
Walking upright means the network of 33 vertebra that protect our spinal cords endure more pressure than the spines of four (or more)-legged animals. As a result, over the course of a lifetime, almost every human spine suffers degenerative changes in either the vertebra or the disks between them.
These disks -- the spine’s shock absorbers -- are often ground zero for back problems. When a disk begins to wear down, it begins to swell -- bulging like a boxer’s punched lip, says Parris.
That swelling puts pressure on the nerves nearby, radiating pain as far out as your leg. Herniated disks are one of the most common causes of back pain, but they certainly are not the only one.
Spinal stenosis, which is pain resulting from a narrowing of the spinal cord, is a common condition that occurs after injury or surgery or as a part of the aging process; it’s the most common reason for back surgery in people over age 60.
Most of us will experience back pain in our lives, but for most of us this pain resolves on its own in a few weeks. Of people who see a doctor for lingering back pain, medication and physical therapy will usually do the trick.
Only a fraction will ultimately need surgery to treat their troubled spine. And of those who undergo surgery, 95 percent of them will enjoy a much-improved quality of life after the procedure.
Parris notes that there are a variety of ways to treat back pain, many of which incorporate exercise, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes. The Duke Pain Clinic is one of the few places in the United States that offers a new procedure called percutaneous neuroplasty to patients with spinal stenosis and failed back surgery.
This treatment, which involves injecting a solution into the affected area of the spinal column, can offer significant relief where traditional approaches to spinal pain have failed.
“Twenty years ago, everyone with back pain essentially got the same procedure or the same pain medicine,” he says. “Now physicians know how to tailor their approach to what’s going on in each patient’s body.”
Most cases of back pain can be treated by your primary care provider and will abate in about six weeks, according to Duke back pain experts.
You might need specialized attention if you experience:
Parris says that if you are experiencing pain of any sort that has persisted for three months or more -- and you’ve already received treatment from a specialist -- it’s time to seek out the services of a pain doctor.
The Duke Pain and Palliative Care Program treats joint-related pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, sickle cell crisis, and other chronic painful conditions. To reach the Duke Pain Clinic, call 919-684-7246 or 888-ASK-DUKE (888-275-3853).