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How Much Back Pain Does it Take Before You Should See a Doctor?

January 14, 2021

By Dr. Mark Hornyak
Backus Hospital

Back and neck pain are common problems. In fact, back pain is the third-most common reason adults visit the doctor.

Sometimes the pain is simply related to aging, resolved with an over-the-counter medication or an ice pack. But some back and neck pain is related to other, more serious, conditions.

How much back pain is abnormal?

If your pain has lasted more than six weeks, doesn’t improve or gets worse, it’s time to see a doctor — especially if you are over age 55 or under age 20. These could be signs of a more serious problem.

Typically, degeneration of the spine causes pain in the back or neck area. As we get older, our back discs lose their water and elasticity. It makes them stiffer and harder, affecting movement of the spine. Arthritis can speed up this process as well.

To start, your doctor should treat conservatively with medication, physical therapy, yoga or pilates or steroid injections.

What kind of pain along the spine should trigger a call to your doctor?

If the pain isn’t lessened or eliminated by conservative treatment and you experience pain radiating down your arm or leg, numbness, tingling or weakness, it may be time to discuss surgery.

Degenerative diseases, including degenerative disc disease, disc herniation and arthritis, often lead to spine surgery. Tumors and trauma to the spine can also require surgery.

Surgery relieves symptoms, with a rapid return to daily life activities. Fortunately, many minimally invasive options for spine surgeries are available. Robotic arms and image-guided technology help surgeons make fewer and smaller incisions, which help patients recover more quickly.

Back problems don’t mean you have to back off the things you enjoy. Regular exercise, including strength training, maintaining a healthy weight and diet, can all help combat chronic back pain.

But you’ll have many treatment options if you suffer chronic back pain. It’s important to find the right one that works for your body and your condition. Talk to your doctor about which is best before beginning treatment.

Dr. Mark Hornyak is a board-certified neurosurgeon at Backus Hospital in Norwich.