Back pain can be devastating. Just ask my wife. Prior to our upcoming wedding my wife decided she wanted to get in shape. She joined a gym and, in her zeal, she repeated the weight routine three days in a row. The next day she suffered severe lower back pain which subsequently has besieged her for the past 38 years. (I know this because we just celebrated our 38th anniversary.) Guess who has been destined to be the luggage shlepper and primary grocery shopper in our marriage?
My wife has not been alone in experiencing low back pain. 80% of adults suffer low back pain sometime during their lifetime. In younger people, pain is mostly due to mechanical factors – the interplay of spine, muscles, ligaments, discs, and nerves in the way of they fit together. Low back pain can be triggered by repeated straining such as at a gym, or by a fall or accident, or by a sudden action involving lifting a heavy weight or twisting abruptly. Oddly, a herniated disc can happen spontaneously without a specific injury. In older adults, the most common cause of low back pain is spinal stenosis which means narrowing of the spaces of the spine. With aging, some people develop spurs in their vertebrae, and ligaments around the spine may thicken which together may cause narrowing (stenosis) where the nerves exit the spine. This typically results in pain while standing and walking, and relief by sitting.
While most causes of back pain are not life threatening, there are some warning symptoms that indicate immediate attention is required. These “red flags” include history of trauma, fever, incontinence, history of cancer, unexplained weight loss, long term steroid use, and intense localized pain with inability to find a comfortable position. Coincidently, the reason there why there was a position available when I was hired at Kaiser was because my predecessor had died of back pain due to an epidural abscess, an infection near the spinal cord. While I don’t know the details of his illness, he likely had fever with his back pain, and unfortunately did not appreciate the implication. Life threatening cases of back pain with fever I have treated include pyelonephritis (kidney infection) and endocarditis (heart infection.) Back pain with fever can be a lethal combination.
The inability to find a position of comfort typifies a patient who present with an abdominal aortic aneurysm. For this reason alone, I routinely examine any older patient with back pain for the presence of a pulsating mass in the abdomen. During the course of my career, I have detected two patients with aortic aneurysms. They both were ex-smokers and were overtly grateful since delayed diagnosis is almost always fatal.
A patient with a history of cancer always raises a red flag to me even if the cancer occurred decades prior. The most common types of cancer that spread to bone are breast, prostate, lung, kidney and thyroid. While most doctors have been well educated about not doing unnecessary imaging studies, a patient who has a past history of cancer especially with any history of recent weight loss deserves x-ray evaluation.
When back pain is not spine pain
During the fifteen years I spent working part time in spine clinic at Kaiser, I was amazed the number of times a patient was referred for back pain actually had something other than a spine condition. Two of the most common conditions that can be confused with a spinal disorder especially in older adults include osteoarthritis of the hip and peripheral artery disease (PAD). Hip osteoarthritis can usually be distinguished by performing a hip examination during the visit and by getting hip x-rays. A person with good range of motion of hips does not likely have significant hip arthritis. PAD can usually be determined by checking all the pulses in the legs and feet. The other feature differentiating PAD from spinal stenosis is that patients with PAD do not have pain while standing, while spinal stenosis patients generally do. Sometimes, though, a patient might have more than one condition causing back and/or leg pain in which case more sensitive testing is indicated to evaluate circulation competency and neurological function.
Other causes of low back pain outside the spine include kidney stones, acute pancreatitis, herpes zoster (shingles), endometriosis, and fibromyalgia.
What is the scoop about MRI’s?
A common question from many people with back pain is whether they should get an MRI to pinpoint the cause of their problem. The problem is that most people even without back pain will have an abnormality on an MRI exam. Falsely alarming MRI results in patients who have back pain explain why back surgery in the U.S. is more than twice as high as in other countries. Yes, surgery corrects the problem seen on the MRI but this may be unrelated to the cause of the pain.
Treatment of low back pain can vary depending if it is acute or chronic (more than 3 months). There are no hard and fast rules, but generally ice packs are advised for pain within 2-3 days of injury. Heat can help ease subacute or chronic pain. Bed rest after acute injury tends to delay recovery, and it is important to resume normal activity as soon as possible. Physical therapy can help strengthen core muscles that support the spine, but an interesting study from UCLA a few years ago showed that walking three hours a week was more effective than three hours of physical therapy a week. Epidural steroid injections can be given for low back pain associated with sciatica, but a recent NIH study showed that in patients with spinal stenosis who received epidural injections had worse long term outcomes than those who did not receive them. Surgery may be considered in serious injury situations or if there is progressive neurological deterioration. While there appears to be short term benefit in patients who have undergone surgery, long term benefits going out four years and ten years appear to show no clear advantage compared to those who have not had surgery. Although I am not fond of many of the medications advertised for low back pain, sometimes they serve a purpose in helping someone to become more active and exercise once again.
Regular exercise is the best way to keep one’s back healthy. My wife has found walking at least 60 minutes a day helps to lessen recurrences of low back pain. She also stretches regularly, and does not wear high heeled shoes. When she is sitting in the car or a chair, she uses a lumbar support called a Sacro-Ease or an inflatable travel pillow. She avoids any significant lifting, but if she does lift something she lifts with bent knees, carries the object close to her, and does not twist. For me, running, biking, and doing yoga at the PJCC keeps my back in shape, but everyone has to find a regimen that works best for them.
While back pain can be disabling, it can also be managed with regular activity and awareness to prevent further damage. Three months ago my wife injured her back again when she missed a step getting out of an elevator while holding one of our granddaughters who impeded her vision. To avoid trauma to our granddaughter, she sacrificed herself by intentionally twisting her spine as she fell. I am happy to say that granddaughter and “Nana” are back in each other’s arms once again.
For further information about low back pain, visit the NIH site.
Jerry Saliman, MD is a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo. He retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after working there more than 30 years. While at Kaiser SSF, Dr. Saliman was also Chief of Patient Education. He received the 2012 “Lifetime Achievement Award” given by the Kaiser SSF Medical Staff.
Editing acknowledgement: Ellen Saliman
Neither the PJCC or our guest columnists provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please make your health care decisions in partnership with your health care provider