When back pain strikes for the first time, it brings with it many decisions to be made: How long should you wait before seeing a doctor? What do the test results mean? Should you get surgery?
There are no set of right or wrong answers to these questions—each person's individual situation is unique. But through the collective wisdom of spine specialists and others who have dealt with back pain, these six choices seem to be factors that may make your back pain worse or delay getting relief through the right treatment.
While it's true that low back pain usually gets better within a few weeks, don't make the mistake of ignoring it too long. Go to a spine specialist to get a diagnosis and treatment plan. With a correct diagnosis, you can start to map out a recovery plan that may include exercise, massage therapy, or a visit with a physical therapist.
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Primary care physicians and general practitioners typically don’t have in-depth training in spine medicine, so it may be harder to get an accurate diagnosis and/or treatment plan. The best way your primary care doctor can help you is by referring you to an excellent spine professional.
For many, it's tempting to view spine surgery as a "quick fix." However, it is typically recommended to try nonsurgical treatment for at least several weeks or months before consulting a spine surgeon (with a few exceptions). While surgery can fix a specific anatomical problem, such as a herniated disc pressing on a nerve, conditions like degenerative disc disease are better managed with a long-term plan for physical therapy and exercise.
On the other hand, for certain conditions patients tend to do better if they have surgery sooner. For example, when there is arm or leg pain and weakness because a nerve root is pinched, known as radiculopathy, it is often best to take pressure off the nerve root through surgery sooner to avoid developing nerve problems.
Imaging tests like MRI or CT scans are just pictures; they do not show pain. In fact, you may have terrible pain and a scan that shows a normal-looking spine, or you may have a scan that shows a large herniated disc, yet have no pain. A skilled physician will be able to read your imaging test results and combine them with information from your patient history and physical exam to produce an accurate diagnosis.
If you are in acute pain, a few days of doctor-recommended rest is fine. However, lack of activity can in fact lead to more pain over time, so don't stay idle too long. Keeping your back and supporting structures flexible and strong means that they can better support your spine, hasten the healing process, and minimize the chance of future pain or injury. The core abdominal and back muscles don't get much exercise from everyday activities and need specific attention.
Back pain is different for everyone, so trust yourself—and get educated about your situation—so you have the best chance of getting better quickly.
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