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Understanding Low Back Pain

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December 2002
Understanding Low Back Pain

With the exception of cold and flu symptoms, backaches send more people to the doctor than any other medical condition. Approximately 65 million Americans are affected by back pain, and about 80 percent of the population will experience some form of it at least once in their lifetime. Low back pain affects both men and women equally, and usually occurs between the ages of 25 and 60. Low back pain is so common that it is the most prevalent cause of disability in people under the age of 45, and is the fifth most frequent reason for hospitalization in the United States.

Many factors can contribute to low back pain, including strain or injury, infections, arthritis, inflammatory disease or damaged discs in the spine. Discs are spongy ?shock absorbers? between each vertebra in the spine. They provide the flexibility to twist, turn and bend, and serve as cushions that each individual bone in the spine sits on, allowing people to walk, run, jump and perform all other normal activities without creating friction between the vertebrae. When discs harden, or begin to deteriorate due to age, injury or disease, the vertebrae can press against nearby nerves or the spinal cord, which can be extremely painful.

Low back pain can be defined in one of two ways: acute or chronic. Acute pain has an immediate, abrupt onset and is typically a result of arthritis, trauma or stress, fractures, infections, internal organ damage or in some cases, cancer. Roughly half of all back pain patients experience acute pain caused from trauma or injury, and the pain is usually a result of a contusion, torn muscle or strained joint. In contrast, chronic pain generally lasts for an extended period of time, with no relief, and is caused by injury and/or damage to the spine or the surrounding area.

Beverly Marzuco, a 48-year-old mother and grandmother from St. Louis, experienced low back pain for more than 10 years before the cause of her pain was determined. The pain was so intense that she was forced to quit her job and eventually, could no longer perform everyday activities such as getting dressed, taking a shower or putting on her shoes without the assistance of her husband. She saw nine different doctors, but not one could identify the source of her pain. Beverly was deemed a ?hypochondriac? and was told to ?learn to live with the pain.? She became so frustrated that she contemplated suicide. Finally, Beverly sought treatment from an orthopedic surgeon, who diagnosed her with a damaged disc. She had surgery to fuse or ?weld? the bones in her spine that were the source of her problem, and today she is back at work, living her life pain-free.

Aside from surgery, a variety of treatments can be recommended for low back pain, depending on the severity and cause of the pain. Rest, ice / heat, meditation and/or light exercise are generally prescribed for patients who have minor pain. For more severe, constant pain, oral medication and/or epidural steroid injections, or potent anti-inflammatory medications delivered into the spinal canal to reduce pain and inflammation, are often recommended. If these treatments do not provide relief within two to three months, surgery is considered. Beverly Marzuco underwent a spinal fusion surgery, which is a common procedure for patients with damaged discs.

Until recently, spinal fusion procedures required two surgeries -- one to harvest pieces of bone from the patient?s hip, and a second to implant them into the spine. However, a genetically engineered protein, called INFUSE Bone Graft, recently became available for spinal fusion surgeries, and eliminates the need to harvest bone from the hip.

People with severe low back pain -- especially pain that has lasted more than two weeks -- should consult their physician or schedule an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon or spine specialist to assess the source of their pain. Additionally, people who are experiencing pain that increases with sneezing or coughing, is accompanied with numbness or radiates down the leg and buttocks, or pain that induces urinary problems or causes difficulty sleeping, should consult their physician immediately.

Low back pain can have serious consequences, both physically and emotionally, if not treated appropriately. Additional information on low back pain causes, treatment options and physician experts can be found by visiting www.back.com on the Internet.

-Courtesy of ARA Content


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