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Medical Advancements to Ease Your Pain in the Neck (and Back)

If you’ve ever experienced back or neck pain, as eight out of every 10 people have, you know how debilitating it can be. Even mild pain can stop you from participating in activities you enjoy and make completing tasks of daily living uncomfortable. Those with severe pain sometimes are unable to do much at all, as every movement can cause increasing discomfort.

According to Dr. Kenneth L. Hill, a neurosurgeon who joined the staff of Penn State Health St. Joseph in December, there are reasons for those suffering from back or neck pain to be optimistic, as there have been many advances in the field, with more on the way.

“There are some exciting treatments and developments coming down the road,” Hill said. There are many reasons for pain in the back and neck, he explained, and most – 80 percent – can be managed with medications, rest and therapy. Sometimes, however, those therapies don’t work and surgery becomes an option. “It’s the other 20 percent that get referred on,” Hill said.

Pain associated with neck and back pathology can be difficult to pinpoint, but the most common reason for pain is degeneration of spinal discs, the soft discs that separate the vertebrae.

Degeneration is very common, especially affecting the discs in the lumbar region (lower back), and those in the cervical region (neck). “It happens to all of us,” Dr. Hill explained. “It’s a factor of gravity pulling us down and us standing upright.” While degeneration sometimes has no symptoms, changes in the spinal discs can result in neck or back pain, sometimes accompanied by osteoarthritis, herniated disc or spinal stenosis.

These conditions can cause pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, resulting in pain and sometimes affecting nerve function. Trauma is another common cause for pain and problems with the back and neck.

While treatments such as therapy and medication always are recommended as the first-line defense against neck and back pain, there are instances, such as when a patient is experiencing problems with bowel or bladder control, that he or she should be referred to a neurosurgeon.

“If you’re experiencing bowel or bladder problems, you must urgently see a neurosurgeon,” Dr. Hill said. “You come to see me after you’ve gone through all the conservative measures without relief. Surgery should be a last resort, not a go-to option.”

Ruth Grant, 79, experienced three back surgeries between 1972 and 2015. She suffers from spinal stenosis, a condition that results in narrowing of the spinal canal, the area which holds the spinal cord.

Grant, of Robeson Township, highly praised Dr. Marcus Keep, a neurosurgeon at Penn State St. Joseph who performed her surgery in 2015. “I can’t sing his praises enough,” Grant said. “It was the easiest surgery I ever had, and I was a lot older than I was when I had the other two.” A notable, recent advancement in back and neck surgery is artificial disc replacement. During the surgery, a mechanical device is inserted to replace a worn, degenerated disc or discs.

The procedure replaces spinal fusion, during which one or more vertebrae are fused together, eliminating motion between them. Fusion surgery was long considered the best surgical treatment for severe degenerative disc disease, but doctors are increasingly looking to artificial disc replacement, Hill said.

“I’ve probably done about 30 of them over the years,” he said. “There are new reports coming out every month and it depends on what you read, but for right now, we know they (artificial disc replacements) are not inferior to fusion.”

Other promising advances are occurring in areas including surgery to treat spinal cord injuries, stem cell implantation to treat certain conditions and biomechanics.

Kenneth Hill, Jr., MD, FAANS is board certified in Neurological Surgery and is an Associate Professor on faculty at Pennsylvania State Hershey as well as on staff at Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Department of Neurosurgery. Dr. Hill specializes in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of disorders of the central and peripheral nervous system including congenital anomalies, trauma, tumors of the brain and spine, infections, stroke and degenerative diseases of the neck and back. For an appointment call 610-378-2557.


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