The numbers of Americans suffering from neck and/or back pain are truly staggering. According to the National Health Institute (NHI) at Georgetown University, nearly 65 million people report a recent episode of back pain, with 16 million of adults – 8% – experiencing persistent or chronic back pain.
In addition, as many as 70% of adults will experience a degree of neck pain that prevents them from engaging in their daily activities during their lifetime.
As might be expected, the average occurrence of such conditions increases with age; the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), part of the CDC, reports that the percentage of adults with back pain rises from nearly 28% for those aged 18–29 and 35% for those aged 30–44 to nearly 44% for those aged 45–64 and 46% for those aged 65 and over.
This is a natural part of the aging process. As we get older, the standard wear and tear on our spines can result in the discs between our vertebrae to dry out and shrink. In turn, that can lead to osteoarthritis in the spine, which can cause even greater pain – including pinched nerves in the back and legs, leading to sciatica.
But not all pains are alike. Sleeping in an awkward position, lifting something unusually heavy – or, sometimes, for no reason at all – can result in back and neck pain.
Common solutions are:
- Applying heat to the affected area.
- Taking an anti-inflammatory medication – as long as the individual is not already taking a blood thinner, is a significant factor to keep in mind for older people.
- Engaging in low-impact exercise like walking, sessions on an elliptical machine or exercise bike or, best of all, swimming.
MORE SERIOUS PAIN
If, however, the pain continues to linger after a few weeks, it is probably time to see a physician. As is the case with most conditions, it is important to remember that not all back- and neck-pain patients will require the same type of care. Unless the pain has become truly unbearable and is preventing one from enjoying their usual routines, oftentimes physical therapy or a tailored exercise program can be the solution.
Ultimately, however, surgery may be necessary. Three of the most typical back surgeries are:
- Discectomy, where a herniated or “slipped” disc is partially or completely removed.
- Laminectomy, where the surgeon eases pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots by removing part or all of the vertebral bone (lamina).
- Spinal fusion. The most common, involving fusing the vertebrae together to stop the problematic motion.
In addition to the above preventive measures, staying well-hydrated is also important, as is trying to maintain a supportive posture. The latter can be a challenge as we age, and bad postural habits formed earlier in life – from bending over a desk, piece of machinery, or nowadays our phones – certainly will not have helped. But making a concerted effort to walk as erectly (yet comfortably) as possible can have a number of positive effects.
And if these measures prove to be insufficient, by all means visit a physician or orthopedic specialist to discuss a comprehensive treatment plan. There is no reason to put up with such a debilitating condition when there are so many options available.
Dr. Andrew Casden is Chief of Orthopedic Surgery and Spine Surgery at White Plains Hospital. To make an appointment, please call 914-849-7897.