How to Treat Low-back Pain

This is the last of a 3-part series on back pain. The first two columns were about causes and prevention. This one is about treatments.

Treatment for back pain generally depends on whether it is acute or chronic. Acute back pain usually gets better on its own. Treatment for chronic back pain is either non-surgical or surgical. In most cases, back pain does not require surgery.

The following are common non-surgical treatments for chronic back pain. They have varying degrees of support from the medical community. You should seek your own doctor’s advice about any of them.

* Hot or cold packs can be soothing.

* Exercise can help ease chronic pain and perhaps reduce its risk of returning.

* Medications are used to treat chronic back pain. These include over-the-counter pain-relievers such Tylenol; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen that relieve both pain and inflammation; prescription narcotics such as oxycodone; topical analgesics such as Ben Gay; muscle relaxants and certain antidepressants.

* Traction, which employs pulleys and weights to stretch the back, pulls the vertebrae apart to allow a bulging disc to slip back into place.

* Injections into nerves, spinal joints or specific areas of pain.

* Spinal manipulation refers to procedures in which professionals use their hands to treat the spine or surrounding tissues.

* Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) involves wearing a small box over the painful area that directs mild electrical impulses to nerves there.

* Acupuncture, which involves the insertion of thin needles at precise locations, is used to relieve pain.

* In acupressure, no needles are used. Instead, a therapist applies pressure to points with hands, elbows, or even feet.

* Rolfing is a type of massage involving strong pressure on deep tissues in the back to relieve tightness.

Some of the conditions that may require surgery include:

* Herniated, or ruptured discs that are damaged and irritate nearby nerves.

* Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal.

* Spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a vertebra dislocates.

* Vertebral fractures caused by trauma or crumbling of the vertebrae.

* Degenerative disc disease brought on by aging.

Following are some commonly performed back surgeries:

* Laminectomy/discectomy in which part of the lamina, a portion of the bone on the back of the vertebrae, is removed. The herniated disc is then removed.

* Microdiscectomy removes a herniated disc through a small incision in the back. The doctor uses a magnifying microscope in this operation.

* Laser surgery. During this procedure, the surgeon inserts a needle in the disc that delivers a few bursts of laser energy to vaporize the tissue in the disc. This reduces its size and relieves pressure on the nerves.

* In a laminectomy, the doctor makes a large incision down the affected area of the spine and removes the lamina and any bone spurs, which are overgrowths of bone, that may have formed in the spinal canal because of osteoarthritis.

* In spinal fusion, two or more vertebrae are joined together using bone grafts, screws, and rods to stop slippage of an affected vertebrae.

* Disc replacement: When a disc is herniated, one alternative to  remove the disc and replace it with a synthetic disc.

The Healthy Geezer column publishes each Monday on LiveScience. If you would like to ask a question, please write © 2010 by Fred Cicetti.

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."