December 18, 2012

Back pain takes toll on daily life


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Back pain can be a nuisance, or it can be a debilitating condition that impacts a person’s quality of life and ability to perform daily activities.

Dr. Joseph Arguelles, a neurosurgeon on the staff of CVPH Medical Center, recently gave a presentation titled “A Community Neurosurgeon’s Perspective to Back Pain,” as part of the CVPH Lecture Series at West Side Ballroom in Plattsburgh. 

A packed audience of more than 100 interested residents attended.

“Back pain is the most common cause of job-related disabilities,” said Arguelles, who has been practicing medicine in the North Country since 2006.

“It’s the most common reason people lose days at work, and it’s the second most common complaint in the neurosurgeon’s office, next to headaches.”

The neurosurgeon looks at such issues as back pain from a perspective much different than that of the physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon, Arguelles said.

“There are two different kinds of back pain: acute back pain that is of short duration and chronic back pain that lasts more than three months,” he said.

Acute back pain will most often come on suddenly and is typically caused by some kind of mechanical problem, Arguelles noted. Trying to lift items that are too heavy or trying to do too much over a short period of time are common causes, he said.

“People with a passion for sports who exercise vigorously are often victims of this type of pain. Trying to get in the firewood before the storm hits or trying to lift that one last heavy box while cleaning the garage can bring on pain.”

A new problem neurosurgeons are now seeing is from school-aged kids who are carrying heavy backpacks throughout the day, he added.

Although this type of back pain may be a symptom of more problematic issues, neurosurgeons often prescribe the most basic measures to improve the condition:

“The basic treatment is rest to cut down on inflammation,” Arguelles said. “We can apply heat over the first couple of days and then alternate ice with heat after that.”

He does suggest that if people decide to take pain medication such as Motrin or Aleve that they give it time to kick in. People will often not feel any results after the first or second day and will then stop taking it before it has a chance to do its job.

Arguelles does not recommend bed rest for more than a few days. A person with acute back pain should begin moderate, non-strenuous activities, such as short walks and stretching.

He also supports getting additional help from the area’s wellness centers and exercise facilities.

Chronic back pain can have the same causes as acute, but symptoms progress over a period of time.

“Many patients have repeated mechanical strain,” he said. “If a person is not able to make appropriate changes to day-to-day activities, this kind of pain may continue to come back.”

Chronic back pain can be caused by changes in the way a person carries his or her body. For instance, a person’s posture may change after suffering from a fractured bone or from surgeries, he noted.

Even minor injuries to the body’s spinal cord can cause severe pain. The spine also depends heavily on back muscles for support, and when there is strain to those muscles, it can impact the spine itself.

“Ninety percent of acute back pain will go away within six weeks,” Arguelles said. “If persistent pain lasts more than that, then we will investigate more fully.”

Earlier interventions may be required when back pain is accompanied by numbness, weakness, nausea and vomiting, which could suggest other factors such as infections or tumors, he added.

“The most common test for patients with persistent back pain is an MRI scan,” he said. “It is a very useful and extremely sensitive test.”

There are also surgical procedures to correct such problems as disc tears or protruding discs, though Arguelles noted that 9 out of 10 people with back pain get better without surgery.

“One benefit surgery has is that it can eliminate pain almost immediately, but it doesn’t reduce the possibility that pain may come back.”

Arguelles also suggests working closely with therapists to improve posture as a weapon against back pain.

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