pain in the neck (and back)

The number of Americans suffering from neck and/or back pain is truly staggering.  According to the National Health Institute (NHI) at Georgetown University, nearly 65 million people report a recent episode of back pain, with 16 million adults experiencing persistent or chronic back pain.

In addition, as many as 70% of adults will experience a degree of neck pain that prevents them from engaging in their daily activities during their lifetime.

As might be expected, the average occurrence of such conditions increases with age; the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), part of the CDC, reports the percentage of adults with back pain rises from nearly 28% for those ages 18 to 29 and 35% for those ages 30 to 44 to nearly 44% for those 45 to 64 and 46% for those 65 and older.

Back pain is a natural part of the aging process. As we get older, the standard wear and tear on our spines can result in the discs between our vertebrae drying out and shrinking. In turn, that can lead to osteoarthritis in the spine, which can cause even greater pain – including pinched nerves in the back and legs, leading to sciatica.

But not all pains are alike. Sleeping in an awkward position or lifting something unusually heavy can result in back and neck pain. Sometimes, pain can occur for no reason at all.

Common solutions are:
• Applying heat to the affected area.
• Taking an anti-inflammatory medication (as long as the individual is not already taking a blood thinner).
• Engaging in low-impact exercise like walking, sessions on an elliptical machine or exercise bike or, best of all, swimming.

If, however, the pain continues to linger after a few weeks, it is probably time to see a physician. As is the case with most conditions, not all back- and neck-pain patients will require the same type of care. Unless the pain has become truly unbearable and is preventing you from enjoying your usual routines, physical therapy or a tailored exercise program often can be the solution.

Ultimately, however, surgery may be necessary. Three of the most typical back surgeries are:
• Discectomy, where a herniated or “slipped” disc is partially or completely removed.
• Laminectomy, where the surgeon eases pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots by removing part or all of the vertebral bone (lamina).
• Spinal fusion. The most common involves fusing the vertebrae together to stop the problematic motion.

In addition to the mentioned preventive measures, staying well-hydrated is also important, as is trying to maintain a supportive posture. The latter can be a challenge as we age, and bad postural habits formed earlier in life – from bending over a desk, piece of machinery, or nowadays our phones – certainly will not have helped. But making a concerted effort to walk as erectly (yet comfortably) as possible can have a number of positive effects.

And if these measures prove to be insufficient, by all means visit a physician or orthopedic specialist to discuss a comprehensive treatment plan. There is no reason to put up with such a debilitating condition when there are so many options available.


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