About 80 percent of adults will experience back pain at some point in their life, and the risk climbs with age. There are various reasons people may experience back pain — fractures in the spine, arthritis of the joints, narrowing of the spinal canal, a herniated disc or a mechanical problem related to the back muscles. Symptoms can often be reduced with the proper medications and structured exercise — regardless of the cause — explains Ritu Zacharias, M.D., a board certified physiatrist in the Department of Neurosurgery at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
“The majority of acute back pain improves within three months when it is managed appropriately,” Dr. Zacharias says. “It’s best to begin with conservative measures. If we do not see improvement in pain or strength, then we consider interdisciplinary pain management or surgical options.”
Making a diagnosis
When caring for patients, Dr. Zacharias has established a well-defined process to arrive at an accurate diagnosis and develop a specialized treatment plan for each patient. That process begins with a comprehensive physical exam.
“I look to rule out more serious conditions, such as an infection, cancer or spinal cord injury,” she says.
“An important component of the exam is evaluating the central and peripheral nervous system by testing reflexes, sensation and strength. It is also critical to look for functional limitations, such as an inability to walk or stand.”
Dr. Zacharias also records a detailed medical history for each patient.
“Certain seemingly unrelated medical conditions, such as arthritis of peripheral joints or gastrointestinal issues, can contribute to back pain,” she says. “Also, understanding the medications patients take helps me determine which ones may work best without causing any unsafe interactions or negative side effects.”
When needed, Dr. Zacharias refers patients for an X-ray, CAT scan (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to further define what may be causing the pain.
“These tests may show there is a structural problem, such as a pinched nerve, a herniated disc or arthritis of the spinal canal,” she says.
Providing a full spectrum of spine services
After Dr. Zacharias diagnoses the cause of the back pain, she relies on a wide range of methods to treat it. These may include physical therapy, yoga, stretching, heat or ice, steroid injections, exercises, medication and more.
Although she turns to conservative therapies first, Dr. Zacharias refers patients to the appropriate provider within Henry Ford West Bloomfield when an issue requires the help of a surgeon or other specialist.
“We are very fortunate to have a diverse network of specialists who can help, such as my colleagues in
neurosurgery, bone mineral, pain management, rheumatology, sports medicine and orthopaedic surgery,” she says. This team of Henry Ford providers ensures seamless continuity of care for patients.
Ultimately, Dr. Zacharias sees the spine as one part of a bigger picture when treating patients.
“I take a whole-person approach to addressing pain,” she says. “I look at back pain from multiple angles, and I assess the health and function of peripheral joints to optimize the care you receive. My ultimate goal is to improve function and maximize quality of life.”