Aching back? Pain down your legs? You’re not alone. In fact, back pain and its side effects are some of the most common types of chronic pain in the United States, according to Dr. Justin Slavin, a neurosurgeon at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
We talked with Slavin and his colleague, neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Iguchi, about the reasons for back pain. “A lot of people experience back pain in their lifetime,” says Iguchi. “We listen to their symptoms to help evaluate for the different causes of back pain.”
If you’re living with severe back pain, you might be thinking about surgery. Take this quiz to find out if it could help.
1. What conservative treatments have you already tried?
- Physical therapy
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Visiting a chiropractor
Answers: All of the above. If you’ve tried heat, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication and a visit to a chiropractor without relief, surgery may be something to consider. Now it’s time to see a neurosurgeon and get his or her opinion. Your pain could be caused by a pinched nerve from a bulging disk and might require surgery to fix.
2. How long has your back pain lasted?
- Three hours
- Three days
- Three weeks
- Three months
Answer: “Most back pain clears up in three months,” says Slavin. If the pain has lasted longer, it’s time to talk to a doctor and see if surgery is an option. Iguchi adds that if the pain is worsening instead of improving over several weeks, it’s safest to get to a physician quickly to determine the cause.
3. What activities have caused pain?
Answer: Any of the above. If daily activities are causing intolerable pain, speak to a neurosurgeon about the best options. He or she will most likely order imaging like an MRI or a CT scan and suggest options — possibly surgery — to relieve the pain.
4. Do you have pain/burning/tingling in your leg/foot?
Answer: Yes. If you have pain in your foot or symptoms like weakness throughout your extremities, you might have nerve issues that require surgery. See a physician to learn treatment options. “However,” says Iguchi. “Pain in your feet can happen for a lot of different reasons, like nerve damage from diabetes or an injury from strenuous exercising. Issues with blood flow to the legs can also cause pain. Seeing your doctor can help to diagnose the causes of your pain.”
5. Do you have weakness in your legs or feet?
Answer: If your answer is yes, then back surgery could be in your future. “Weakness in your legs or the loss of control means the nerve is no longer functioning correctly,” explains Slavin. “If you are already experiencing some weakness, then it’s time to do something.” In most cases, weakness is caused by a pinched nerve and can be fixed with surgery.
6. Do any of the following pertain to you?
- Back pain and a history of cancer
- Back pain, are over 65 and have recently fallen
- Back pain and a fever
Answer: Any or all of the above. In each situation, back pain could be a symptom of a serious condition. Before surgery is even considered, see your regular physician for a full checkup. Broken bones, an infection or a recurrence of cancer could be the culprit, explains Dr. Iguchi.