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When Back and Neck Pain Lead to Spinal Surgery

Second only to the common cold as the most-cited reason for lost work productivity, back pain is an all too familiar misery that will affect most people during their lifetime. Why does just about everyone experience back pain? The answer lies in its long list of causes: prolonged poor posture associated with sitting at a computer, staring down at our cell phones, overuse, repetitive motion injuries, generalized arthritis, deconditioning, smoking, obesity, traumatic injuries and even cancers.

“Fortunately, most back pain related to muscle strain will improve with home treatment and self-care within two to three weeks with rest, gentle exercise, ice and heat applications and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications,” says Dr. John Weaver, a neurosurgeon with Penn State Health St. Joseph Neurosurgery. “When that doesn’t work, your physician may prescribe medications, physical therapy and even nerve blocks or joint injections to help reduce the discomfort until the cause of the pain is determined.

If these treatments fail to bring sustained relief, your neurosurgeon will work with you to provide a diagnosis, treatment to reduce pain and if appropriate, surgery all while keeping you safe.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn State Health St. Joseph followed CDC guidelines of care and implemented numerous enhanced safety measures and accommodations, including frequent disinfection and cleaning of common areas, high-touch items and exam and procedure rooms, and enhanced cleaning between patients.

Most often, Dr. Weaver and his team perform elective surgeries for degenerative spine conditions that have arthritis as their underlying problem. These degenerative spine problems can cause compression of nerves as well as joint instability, resulting in misalignment of the spinal bones and pain. Depending on the condition, they offer surgeries to decompress nerves or stabilize the joints by fusing adjacent bones.

“Before offering surgery, we review the imaging studies, including MRI, CT and X-rays, with you and use educational spine models to explain the problem, how surgery may correct it and what you can expect as an outcome,” he says. “While there are risks to all surgeries, we tend to be conservative in our approach and offer surgery when the anticipated outcome has a high likelihood of success.”

Improved technologies have aided efforts to transition in recent years from open surgeries involving large incisions and lengthy recoveries to minimally invasive surgeries that are more precise, require smaller incisions and allow more rapid recovery for patients, according to Weaver.

“Depending on the type of treatment needed, some patients may go home the same day as the surgery, while those undergoing more complex surgery may expect a longer hospital stay. Still others may require inpatient rehabilitation prior to returning home,” he says. “All patients are screened for COVID-19 before surgery or being moved to another level of care.”

Surgical recovery depends on several factors. Someone who undergoes a minimally invasive spine procedure and has a sedentary job might be back to work in 10 days, while another patient who is required to do more manual work may expect a six-week recovery.

“Patients who undergo a spinal fusion often require immobilization with a cervical collar or lumbar brace to promote healing. While they can expect an initial recovery period that lasts one to two months, healing will continue for a long time,” Weaver adds. “Many patients benefit from some assistance for the first few days after discharge from the hospital; however, most patients are encouraged to keep moving, as continued activity lessens the risk of complications from sedentary inactivity and immobility.”

If you are experiencing neck or back pain that has not responded to other treatment, ask your physician for a referral or contact Penn State Health St. Joseph Neurosurgery directly at 610-378-2557.

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