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Can You Walk Away From Back Pain?

July 11, 2014

CLINTON TOWNSHIP – As anyone who suffers from back pain will tell you, the effects go far beyond just the back. Fear of making the pain worse causes you to withdraw from activities you used to enjoy. Emotional effects like stress, anxiety and depression not only worsen the physical pain, they can actually decrease the body’s ability to produce natural painkillers, creating a pain cycle.

Understandably, people who suffer from back pain take great pains to combat it, including medication, injections and surgery. This is often not the best course of action, advises Henry Ford Macomb physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Geoffrey Seidel, MD.

“People are getting too many operations, too many injections and using too many narcotics,” he says. “In addition, people with back pain tend to become stiff and weak, because they immobilize themselves out of fear that they are going to harm themselves. Their life starts to revolve around their pain. For back pain in and of itself, where there is not a neurologic injury, the best treatment is increased activity.”

The cure? Start walking.

“You can never hurt yourself by walking,” Dr. Seidel emphasizes. “The whole goal of recovery is increasing physical mobility – building your strength, flexibility and endurance.”

Dr. Seidel points out that one in five people who have back surgery end up having to have at least one additional surgery, and for many, none of it helps. By contrast, many people with failed back surgeries and people with decades of pain have reported reduction in pain, and even complete freedom from pain once they build their strength.

“If you’ve been sedentary, it can take a good three months to build strength and endurance,” Dr. Seidel says. “But just tense up your abdominal muscles and go for a five-minute walk in the morning and five-minute walk at night. The next week add a minute. If you slowly build a minute a day, pass one more house on the route you walk, before you know it, you’ve gone the distance and not overtaxed your heart and lungs. If you can walk three miles in an hour, and do that four or five days a week, it improves your breathing, pulmonary function, cardiac function, bone mineral density, bowel function and for women it can add a decade to your life. You’ll sleep better, your brain will work better. Walking works. It’s simple and universal. And it’s springtime – ideal for getting started. We are tougher than we let ourselves believe.”

9 tips for preventing back pain

  1. Sit up straight. If you’re at work, make sure your chair supports your lower back, and avoid slouching to view your computer. Change your position every 30 minutes.
  2. Lift wisely. Stand in front of what you’re lifting, place your feet slightly apart, tighten stomach muscles and bend your knees, keeping your back straight. Hold the weight close to your body; avoid twisting as you lift.
  3. Stay active. Aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, swimming or biking reduces back pain and lessens your chance for a repeat backache. Start slowly and increase gradually to 30 minutes almost every day.
  4. Avoid bending over first thing in the morning, when risk of injury to your spinal discs is highest.
  5. Practice stress management techniques like deep breathing.
  6. Pace yourself – set achievable goals and resist the temptation to overdo it on a pain-free day.
  7. If you’re taking medication and the side effects outweigh the benefits, ask your physician if something else might work better.
  8. Reduce or eliminate alcohol. Like pain, it disrupts your sleep cycle.
  9. Smoking impairs healing and can contribute to degenerative disc disease, a leading cause of back pain – so if you smoke, quit.

What to do when pain happens

  • Apply a heat wrap around your lower torso.
  • If an ordinary movement causes sudden pain, you probably stressed those muscles a few days back. Try using an ice pack for 20 minutes at a time once per hour for two days, and if it hasn’t improved, switch to heat.
  • If your back hurts when you move, gently move and stretch. In most cases, activity will help.
  • If your back hurts most early in the morning, it may be arthritis or another inflammatory condition; check with your physician.

When surgery becomes necessary

Andy Wiegand, 59, of Macomb Township is no longer in pain after his spine surgery at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital. Andy, a former firefighter, finally decided on surgery to relieve the pain from a shifting disk in his back after physical therapy and injections no longer helped.

Spine surgeon Michael Kapsokavathis, DO, says the decision to have surgery is a big one and a very individual one.

“The key point for me is disability,” Dr. Kapsokavathis notes. “If a patient’s pain and discomfort cannot be managed and it is changing how they are living their life, it might be time to sit down and have a discussion about surgical options. We talk about the risks and benefits. The tipping point is, are they are a good candidate for surgery and how much will they benefit from a surgical intervention?”

It’s so far so good for Andy.

“I’m getting around, I’m walking on the treadmill, I’m driving,” he said about six weeks after surgery. Most patients are encouraged to take it easy for about three months after spine surgery.
“I have nothing but high praise for Dr. Kapsokavathis, the staff, the hospital and the preparation class,” he said.

Henry Ford Macomb provides a specialized journey of care for patients who need spine surgery.

It begins with a comprehensive pre-surgical orientation class and a surgical team led by a fellowship-trained spine surgeon. It continues in the hospital on a special unit for spine surgery patients, bringing together specially trained nurses, patient and family education, physical and occupational therapy and an emphasis on pain management and movement. Finally, outpatient rehabilitation services are available in multiple locations throughout Macomb County.

To schedule an appointment with a physician specializing in back pain, call the Henry Ford Macomb Physicians Referral Service at 1-800-532-2411.