Understanding and Preventing Neck and Back Pain
By: Dr. Clifford Solomon
Is your back sore when you get out of bed in the morning? Is it difficult to turn your head while driving your vehicle? Do you avoid certain activities because of limited motion? You are not alone - approximately 70 to 85 percent of people experience back and neck pain at some point in their lives. The spine is designed to provide a great deal of strength, protecting the highly sensitive spinal cord and nerve roots, yet flexible, providing for mobility in all directions. The neck—or cervical spine—is a coordinated network of nerves, bones, joints, and muscles directed by the brain and the spinal cord. It is designed for strength, stability, and efficient nerve communication. However, there are many different parts of the spine and neck that can produce pain, such as irritation to the large nerve roots that run down the legs and arms, to small nerves inside the spine, strains to the large back muscles. Pain can be caused by compression of the nerves by tumors, degenerative discs/joints and over growth of ligaments.
Many cases of neck and back pain are the result of a muscle strain. The good news is that such pain generally heals quickly in a few weeks or months. A variety of non-surgical treatments, including medications, heat/ice therapy and back exercises, may be used to deal with discomfort.
Pain that lasts longer than three months is referred to as chronic back pain and may be indicative of an underlying condition like a herniated disc, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal) or a cervical degenerative disc. Depending on the causes of the pain, surgery may or may not be required. It should be known that the effectiveness of pain treatment can vary from person to person, so it is generally advisable to get a comprehensive neck or back pain diagnosis from an experienced medical professional.
In many instances, neck and back pain can be avoided all together by improving your physical condition, core strengthening and learning and practicing proper body mechanics. Demonstrating proper posture and regular exercise are great ways to prevent pain or injury. When you sit, choose a seat that supports your back, arms and legs. Do not turn and hold your head in an unusual position for a long amount of time and be sure to lift with your legs if you are moving an object. Also, maintain a healthy weight as this reduces stress on the spine and back muscles. Finally, if you smoke be sure to quit as tobacco smoke constricts blood flow to muscles in your body.
Remember that pain is a symptom, not a disease. So if neck or back pain is affecting your everyday routine, contact your health care provider for an evaluation.
-Clifford Solomon, M.D., is a neurosurgeon at University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center. To contact Dr. Solomon, please call 410-553-8160.