Talking Back: Understanding the role a healthy spine plays in overall health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lower back pain is one of the most common types of pain reported by patients, with 25% of U.S. adults reporting having experienced lower back pain in the prior three months.

While some may see back pain as a simple inconvenience – the result of an active and busy lifestyle or the natural byproduct of the aging process – it is important to recognize the role the spine plays in maintaining one’s overall health. Baylor Medicine Spine Center physicians Dr. Wyatt Kupperman and Dr. Joey Grochmal share some simple tips on how to maintain a healthy spine and how to identify when it is time to see an expert.

The great connector

A person seen from behind who is holding their back as if in pain.When asked what role the spine plays in maintaining overall health, Dr. Kupperman explains, “The spine is the great connector for our body as it houses the neural system, provides various attachments for our musculoskeletal system and supports our limbs.” Further, the spine “contributes to our functional movement patterns and how we interact with our environment. To maintain a healthy, active life, the spine plays a key role.”

Dos and Don’ts

A healthy spine starts with maintaining a healthy weight and staying fit aerobically with intermittent weight bearing activities, Kupperman said.

“As a society, we spend many hours in a sedentary position, which has been researched and linked to multiple concerns. To counter this, I suggest changing positions and incorporating activity throughout the day,” he said.

When asked what types of activities one should avoid, Kupperman lists harmful activities such as smoking at the top of the list. Additionally, he cautions that periods of sustained flexion on the lumbar spine, such as working in the yard, can increase stress and load on the spine, which can lead to discomfort and possible injury. Lastly, for those who are active in the gym, poor technique and specific spine loading exercises can potentially predispose one to discomfort and injury.

When to see an expert

Spine surgeon Dr. Joey Grochmal offers advice on when one should see an expert for back pain or discomfort. He suggests seeing a primary care physician or pain specialist for any prolonged back pain that does not respond to rest and over-the-counter painkillers. From there, the doctor can refer a patient to a spine expert, such as the experts at the Baylor Medicine Spine Center, for further evaluation.

“It is important to seek the advice of a spine specialist should symptoms include bowel and bladder issues, trouble walking, trouble balancing, shooting pain down either leg, numbness or any overt muscular weakness,” Grochmal said.

In some instances, surgical intervention is needed. “Surgery is recommended for new onset muscle weakness in the legs, prolonged sciatica-style pain (shooting pain down either leg) that is unresponsive to conservative management or prolonged, unresponsive back pain that has an identifiable anatomical cause,” Grochmal explains. “Usually, leg pain and weakness can be attributed to nerve roots being compressed as they try to navigate a degenerative spine. In addition, any sudden urinary or fecal incontinence, usually with profound leg numbness, is a surgical emergency.”

Back pain: fact vs. fiction

Lastly, Grochmal addresses some common misconceptions about back pain:

  1. Back pain is due to a spine problem. Often, but not always. Muscle spasm is probably the most frequent cause and is non-surgical. Hip arthritis can also cause pain associated with the lower back.
  2. Spinal fusion should be avoided. Not true. It is highly beneficial and has proven successful for carefully selected patients.
  3. Back pain is always surgical. Most back pain is not surgical and can be effectively managed by physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications and lifestyle modification (smoking cessation and weight loss).

To request an appointment with a Baylor Medicine Spine Center expert, visit its website or call (713) 798-BACK. Please note: some insurances may require a referral. Please visit the website for more information.

By Cristina Flores, communications associate with the Department of Neurosurgery at Baylor College of Medicine

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