MEDICAL MONDAYS: News Notes
DR. Chris Glattes, MD: Orthopaedic Spine Surgeon
TOPIC: Back Pain
Monday, November 1, 2010
news notes via webmd.com
Back pain may be mild or extreme, quick or constant. What raises your risk -- and what can you do about it? Learn about back pain's causes, risks, and prevention.
Causes of Back Pain
It is important to understand that back pain is a symptom of a medical condition, not a diagnosis itself. Medical problems that can cause back pain include the following:
Mechanical problems: A mechanical problem is due to the way your spine moves or the way you feel when you move your spine in certain ways. Perhaps the most common mechanical cause of back pain is a condition called intervertebral disc degeneration, which simply means that the discs located between the vertebrae of the spine are breaking down with age. As they deteriorate, they lose their cushioning ability. This problem can lead to pain if the back is stressed. Another cause of back pain is the wearing down of the facet joints, which are the large joints that connect each vertebrae to another. Other mechanical causes of back pain include spasms, muscle tension, and ruptured discs, which are also called herniated discs.
Injuries: Spine injuries such as sprains and fractures can cause either short-lived or chronic back pain. Sprains are tears in the ligaments that support the spine, and they can occur from twisting or lifting improperly. Fractured vertebrae are often the result of osteoporosis, a condition that causes weak, porous bones. Less commonly, back pain may be caused by more severe injuries that result from accidents and falls.
Acquired conditions and diseases: Many medical problems can cause or contribute to back pain. They include scoliosis, which causes curvature of the spine and does not usually cause pain until mid-life; spondylolisthesis; various forms of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis; and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. While osteoporosis itself is not painful, it can lead to painful fractures of the vertebrae. Other causes of back pain include pregnancy; kidney stones or infections; endometriosis, which is the buildup of uterine tissue in places outside the uterus; and fibromyalgia, which causes fatigue and widespread muscle pain.
Infections and tumors: Although they are not common causes of back pain, infections can cause pain when they involve the vertebrae, a condition called osteomyelitis, or when they involve the discs that cushion the vertebrae, which is called discitis. Tumors, too, are relatively rare causes of back pain. Occasionally, tumors begin in the back, but more often they appear in the back as a result of cancer that has spread from elsewhere in the body.
Although the causes of back pain are usually physical, it is important to know that emotional stress can play a role in how severe pain is and how long it lasts. Stress can affect the body in many ways, including causing back muscles to become tense and painful. Untreated depression and anxiety can make back pain feel much worse. Likewise, insomnia, or the lack of sleep, can also contribute to back pain.
Low Back Pain - What Increases Your Risk
Low back pain is often triggered by some combination of overuse, muscle strain, or injury to the muscles and ligaments that support the spine. Less commonly, low back pain is caused by illness or spinal deformity.
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of having back pain. More risk factors means you have a higher chance of having back pain.
Risk factors that you cannot change include:
- Being middle-aged or older.
- Being male.
- Having a family history of back pain.
- Having had a previous back injury.
- Being pregnant. A woman's back is significantly stressed by carrying a baby.
- Having had compression fractures of the spine.
- Having had previous back surgery.
- Having spine problems since birth (congenital spine problems).
Risk factors that you can change with lifestyle changes or medical treatment include:
- Not getting regular exercise.
- Doing a job or other activity that requires long periods of sitting, lifting heavy objects, bending or twisting, repetitive motions, or constant vibration, such as using a jackhammer or driving certain types of heavy equipment.
- Smoking. Smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to have low back pain.
- Being overweight. Excess body weight, especially around the waist, may put strain on your back, although this has not been proven. But being overweight often also means being in poor physical condition, with weaker muscles and less flexibility. These can lead to low back pain.
- Having poor posture. Slumping or slouching alone may not cause low back pain. But after the back has been strained or injured, bad posture can make pain worse. "Good posture" generally means your ears, shoulders, and hips are in a straight line. If this posture causes pain, you may have another condition such as a problem with a disc or bones in your back.
- Being under stress. Stress and other emotional factors are believed to play a major role in low back pain, particularly chronic low back pain. Many people unconsciously tighten their back muscles when they are under stress.
- Having long periods of depression.
- Using medicines long-term that weaken bones, such as corticosteroids
Cervical Disc Herniation: Upper Back and Neck Pain
What is cervical disc herniation?
The bones (vertebrae) that form the spine in your back are cushioned by round, flat discs. When these discs are healthy, they act as shock absorbers for the spine and keep the spine flexible. If they become damaged, they may bulge abnormally or break open (rupture), in what is called a herniated or slipped disc. Herniated discs can occur in any part of the spine, but they are most common in the neck (cervical) and lower back (lumbar) spine. The seven vertebrae between the head and the chest make up the cervical spine.
What causes cervical disc herniation?
A herniated disc usually is caused by wear and tear of the disc (also called disc degeneration). As we age, our discs lose some of the fluid that helps them maintain flexibility. A herniated disc also may result from injuries to the spine, which may cause tiny tears or cracks in the outer layer (annulus or capsule) of the disc. The jellylike material (nucleus) inside the disc may be forced out through the tears or cracks in the capsule, which causes the disc to bulge, break open (rupture), or break into fragments.
Herniated discs are much more common in people who smoke.
What are the symptoms?
Herniated discs in the neck (cervical spine) can cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the neck, shoulders, chest, arms, and hands. In some cases a very large herniated disc in the neck may cause weakness or unusual tingling affecting other parts of the body, including the legs.
How is cervical disc herniation diagnosed?
A doctor usually can diagnose a herniated disc from your history of symptoms and a physical examination. Your doctor will ask about pain and numbness that might be caused by irritation of one or more of the nerves in the cervical spine. If your symptoms suggest a cervical herniated disc, rest and rehabilitation often are recommended before further testing is done. If other conditions are suspected, or if there is no improvement in symptoms after a period of rest and rehabilitation, imaging tests such as X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or computerized tomography (CT scan) may be done.
How is it treated?
In most cases, cervical herniated discs are first treated with nonsurgical treatment, including rest or modified activities, medicines to relieve pain and inflammation, and exercises, as recommended by your doctor. Sometimes the doctor also recommends traction, which is gentle, steady pulling on the head to stretch the neck and allow the small joints between the neck bones to spread a little. Symptoms usually improve over time. But if the herniated disc is squeezing your spinal cord or nerves and/or you are experiencing weakness and constant pain, surgery (discectomy) will be considered.
Can You Prevent Back Pain?
The prevention of back pain is, itself, somewhat controversial. It has long been thought that exercise and an all-around healthy lifestyle would prevent back pain. This is not necessarily true. In fact, several studies have found that the wrong type of exercise such as high-impact activities may increase the chance of suffering back pain. Nonetheless, exercise is important for overall health and should not be avoided. Low-impact activities such as swimming, walking, and bicycling can increase overall fitness without straining the low back.
Specific exercises: Talk to your doctor about how to perform these exercises.
- Abdominal crunches, when performed properly, strengthen abdominal muscles and may decrease tendency to suffer back pain.
- Although not useful to treat back pain, stretching exercises are helpful in alleviating tight back muscles.
- The pelvic tilt also helps alleviate tight back muscles.
- Lumbar support belts: Workers who frequently perform heavy lifting are often required to wear these belts. There is no proof that these belts prevent back injury. One study even indicated that these belts increased the likelihood of injury.
- Standing: While standing, keep your head up and stomach pulled in. If you are required to stand for long periods of time, you should have a small stool on which to rest one foot at a time. Do not wear high heels.
- Sitting: Chairs of appropriate height for the task at hand with good lumbar support are preferable. To avoid putting stress on the back, chairs should swivel. Automobile seats should also have adequate low-back support. If not, a small pillow or rolled towel behind the lumbar area will provide adequate support.
- Sleeping: Individual tastes vary. If the mattress is too soft, many people will experience backaches. The same is true for sleeping on a hard mattress. Trial and error may be required. A piece of plywood between the box spring and mattress will stiffen a soft bed. A thick mattress pad will help soften a mattress that is too hard.
- Lifting: Don't lift objects that are too heavy for you. If you attempt to lift something, keep your back straight up and down, head up, and lift with your knees. Keep the object close to you, don't stoop over to lift. Tighten your stomach muscles to keep your back in balance.
Back Pain Surgery
Depending on the diagnosis, surgery may either be the first treatment of choice - although this is rare - or it is reserved for chronic back pain for which other treatments have failed. If you are in constant pain or if pain reoccurs frequently and interferes with your ability to sleep, to function at your job, or to perform daily activities, you may be a candidate for surgery.
In general, there are two groups of people who may require surgery to treat their spinal problems. People in the first group have chronic low back pain and sciatica, and they are often diagnosed with a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, or vertebral fractures with nerve involvement. People in the second group are those with only predominant low back pain (without leg pain). These are people with discogenic low back pain (degenerative disc disease), in which discs wear with age. Usually, the outcome of spine surgery is much more predictable in people with sciatica than in those with predominant low back pain.
Some of the diagnoses that may need surgery include:
- Herniated discs: a potentially painful problem in which the hard outer coating of the discs, which are the circular pieces of connective tissue that cushion the bones of the spine, are damaged, allowing the discs' jelly-like center to leak, irritating nearby nerves. This causes severe sciatica and nerve pain down the leg. A herniated disc is sometimes called a ruptured disc.
- Spinal stenosis: the narrowing of the spinal canal, through which the spinal cord and spinal nerves run.
- It is often caused by the overgrowth of bone caused by osteoarthritis of the spine. Compression of the nerves caused by spinal stenosis can lead not only to pain, but also to numbness in the legs and the loss of bladder and/or bowel control. Patients may have difficulty walking any distances and may also have severe pain in their legs along with numbness and tingling.
- Spondylolisthesis: a condition in which a vertebra of the lumbar spine slips out of place. As the spine tries to stabilize itself, the joints between the slipped vertebra and adjacent vertebrae can become enlarged, pinching nerves as they exit the spinal column. Spondylolisthesis may cause not only low back pain but severe sciatica leg pain.
- Vertebral fractures: fractures caused by trauma to the vertebrae of the spine or by crumbling of the vertebrae resulting from osteoporosis. This causes mostly mechanical back pain, but it may also put pressure on the nerves, creating leg pain.
- Discogenic Low Back Pain (Degenerative Disc Disease): Most people's discs degenerate over a lifetime, but in some, this aging process can become chronically painful, severely interfering with their quality of life.
Following are some of the most commonly performed back surgeries:
For herniated discs:
- Laminectomy/discectomy: In this operation, part of the lamina, a portion of the bone on the back of the vertebrae, is removed, as well as a portion of a ligament. The herniated disc is then removed through the incision, which may extend two or more inches.
- Microdiscectomy: As with traditional discectomy, this procedure involves removing a herniated disc or damaged portion of a disc through an incision in the back. The difference is that the incision is much smaller and the doctor uses a magnifying microscope or lenses to locate the disc through the incision. The smaller incision may reduce pain and the disruption of tissues, and it reduces the size of the surgical scar. It appears to take about the same time to recuperate from a microdiscectomy as from a traditional discectomy.
- Laser surgery: Technological advances in recent decades have led to the use of lasers for operating on patients with herniated discs accompanied by lower back and leg pain. During this procedure, the surgeon inserts a needle in the disc that delivers a few bursts of laser energy to vaporize the tissue in the disc. This reduces its size and relieves pressure on the nerves. Although many patients return to daily activities within 3 to 5 days after laser surgery, pain relief may not be apparent until several weeks or even months after the surgery. The usefulness of laser discectomy is still being debated.
For spinal stenosis:
- Laminectomy: When narrowing of the spine compresses the nerve roots, causing pain and/or affecting sensation, doctors sometimes open up the spinal column with a procedure called a laminectomy. In a laminectomy, the doctor makes a large incision down the affected area of the spine and removes the lamina and any bone spurs, which are overgrowths of bone, that may have formed in the spinal canal as the result of osteoarthritis. The procedure is major surgery that requires a short hospital stay and physical therapy afterwards to help regain strength and mobility.
- Spinal fusion: When a slipped vertebra leads to the enlargement of adjacent facet joints, surgical treatment generally involves both laminectomy (as described above) and spinal fusion. In spinal fusion, two or more vertebrae are joined together using bone grafts, screws, and rods to stop slippage of the affected vertebrae. Bone used for grafting comes from another area of the body, usually the hip or pelvis. In some cases, donor bone is used.
- Although the surgery is generally successful, either type of graft has its drawbacks. Using your own bone means surgery at a second site on your body. With donor bone, there is a slight risk of disease transmission or rejection. In recent years, a new development has eliminated those risks for some people undergoing spinal fusion: proteins called bone morphogenic proteins are being used to stimulate bone generation, eliminating the need for grafts. The proteins are placed in the affected area of the spine, often in collagen putty or sponges.
- Regardless of how spinal fusion is performed, the fused area of the spine becomes immobilized.
For vertebral osteoporotic fractures3:
- Vertebroplasty: When back pain is caused by a compression fracture of a vertebra due to osteoporosis or trauma, doctors may make a small incision in the skin over the affected area and inject a cement-like mixture called polymethyacrylate into the fractured vertebra to relieve pain and stabilize the spine. The procedure is generally performed on an outpatient basis under a mild anesthetic.3 Used only if standard care, rest, corsets/braces, analgesics fail.
- Kyphoplasty: Much like vertebroplasty, kyphoplasty is used to relieve pain and stabilize the spine following fractures due to osteoporosis. Kyphoplasty is a two-step process. In the first step, the doctor inserts a balloon device to help restore the height and shape of the spine. In the second step, he or she injects polymethyacrylate to repair the fractured vertebra. The procedure is done under anesthesia, and in some cases it is performed on an outpatient basis.
For Discogenic Low Back Pain (Degenerative Disc Disease)
- Intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDT): One of the newest and least invasive therapies for low back pain involves inserting a heating wire through a small incision in the back and into a disc. An electrical current is then passed through the wire to strengthen the collagen fibers that hold the disc together. The procedure is done on an outpatient basis, often under local anesthesia. The usefulness of IDT is debatable.
- Spinal fusion: When the degenerated disc is painful, the surgeon may recommend removing it and fusing the disc to help with the pain. This fusion can be done through the abdomen, a procedure known as anterior lumbar interbody fusion, or through the back, called posterior fusion. Theoretically, fusion surgery should eliminate the source of pain; the procedure is successful in about 60 to 70 percent of cases. Fusion for low back pain or any spinal surgeries should only be done as a last resort, and the patient should be fully informed of risks.
- Disc replacement: When a disc is herniated, one alternative to a discectomy - in which the disc is simply removed - is removing it and replacing it with a synthetic disc. Replacing the damaged one with an artificial one restores disc height and movement between the vertebrae. Artificial discs come in several designs.