Back surgery is a frightening prospect to most people. Studies have found 66 percent of spine specialists surveyed believe that fear of possible treatments, including surgery, keeps people from seeking help for back pain. However, experts say not all patients who think they need surgery– or whose doctors have told them they need surgery– actually do. In fact, as many as nine in ten people with back pain can be treated successfully with less drastic interventions, such as medication, physical treatment, and exercise; some don’t even need treatment at all.
“It is heartbreaking to see that myths and an unnecessary fear of surgery are holding people back from getting even the most conservative help for their back pain,” said Dr. Joseph Cheng, associate professor of Neurological Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in a statement.
Of course, the best treatment is not to have back pain in the first place. There’s no surefire way to avoid it entirely, but their are some steps you can take to reduce your risk. Being overweight can place a significant strain on your back. Regular exercise can help, as well as being beneficial in its own right. Smoking can cause back pain; one effect of nicotine is to restrict blood flow to the region, leading to painful pressure.
Posture also plays a role: standing with one foot a bit forward of the other and sitting with your knees higher than your hips ease pressure on your back. It’s best to sleep on your side; if you sleep on your back, keep your knees elevated. Lift with your knees by crouching down instead of bending over, and carry large, heavy objects as close to your body as possible.
One in eight people with back pain doesn’t see a specialist for more than three months, though doctors recommend seeing someone within six weeks. Only about one percent of cases require surgery, generally very specific ailments for which all other treatments have proven ineffective. The vast majority of the time, the pain can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications and painkillers, or chiropractic manipulation. If the pain goes away on its own, or with non-surgical treatment, surgery is not needed.