Help Me Fix It: Dr. Besser Goes in Search of Back Pain Relief

Ways to relieve pain without surgery.

May 11, 2010— -- Carmilla Billick, 56, of Toledo, Ohio, a former nurse's aide, was lifting an elderly patient when she felt a pop in her lower back.

"It just felt like something tore apart," Billick said.

She saw a chiropractor and said she went through physical therapy for one year, but nothing eased her pain. So she decided to visit an orthopedic surgeon who she said recommended surgery.

After Billick's first back surgery, she thought she was on the road to recovery.

"I expected to be completely better and be able to work without any pain," she said.

But her back pain eventually began to creep back. In fact, Billick collapsed on a shopping trip to the mall because of the excruciating pain she felt in her back.

After the recurrence of pain, Billick consulted with Dr. Edward Benzel, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Benzel said he recommended core strengthening and flexibility exercises along with a healthy diet.

"She didn't listen to me and she went and had another operation," Benzel said.

Instead of following through with Benzel's recommendations, Billick said she met another surgeon who told her he could ease her back pain through another surgery.

"At that time, I was just in so much pain, I couldnt even stand or sit or anything. And he said, 'I can fix you through surgery,'" Billick said.

When To See Your Doctor

While back surgery may not always be necessary, Besser said that when you feel these symptoms you should talk to your doctor immediately:

Severe or Persistent Back Pain

Pain Radiating Down Legs

Bladder or Bowel Problems

Leg Weakness

Loss or Abnormal Sensation in Groin or Legs

Surgery for Back Pain: Not So Quick Fix

Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on low back pain, the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. While most cases of low back pain are minor and go away within a few days, others take much longer to resolve and may lead to more serious conditions.

Although Billick underwent surgery again, her pain did not subside. She said it subsequently grew worse. But, like many Americans, Billick said she was looking for a quick fix.

"I regret that I got surgery," she said. "When you are in a lot of pain, your first thought is you want relief."

Surgery for low back pain should only be considered when nonsurgical treatment options have been tried and have failed, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

You should try nonsurgical options for 6 months to a year before considering surgery, according to the Academy. In addition, surgery should only be considered if your doctor can pinpoint the source of your pain.

Although Benzel is a spine surgeon, he said his office should be the last stop on the road to back pain relief.

"We need to be very concerned about the need to do urgent operations," Benzel said. "The problem then becomes one of, one operation leads to another which leads to another."

More than a decade since her first surgery, Billick said she now has the spine of a 90-year-old. Billick, who is now unable to work, faces a lifetime of pain and even more surgery to repair the damage.

"I can't, you know, walk in a mall and hold hands with my husband like we used to when we first got married," Billick said. "I wish I would've taken all avenues possible to relieve the pain. That's what I wish would've done, was not rushed into the surgery."

8 Ways to Prevent Back Pain

While it may seem inevitable that most Americans will experience some sort of back pain throughout their lifetime, understanding your spine can prevent your back pain from becoming a growing problem. The following are a few tips provided by the National Institutes of Health to keep your back healthy and avoid back pain:

Stretch before you exercise and stay active.

Find a chair that supports your lower back. When sitting, make sure the chair at a comfortable height so you can reach the desk without having to slouch or reach.

8 Ways to Prevent Back Pain

Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes if you need to stand for a long time or walk frequently.

Don't try to lift objects too heavy for you. If you are lifting a large object, use your knees, pull in your stomach muscles, and keep your head down and in line with your straight back.

Eat healthy and maintain a normal weight. Excessive weight, especially around the waistline, can put pressure on your lower back muscles.

Quit smoking. Smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine and causes the spinal discs to degenerate.

4 Ways to Mange Flare-Ups

Remain active (go to work as long as doesn't make pain worse, do regular activities that strengthen and stretch, light exercise like walking, biking, swimming - nothing that involves twisting or bending, nothing that makes pain worse). Over-the-counter pain meds (take round the clock for 3 to 5 days, don't wait till you can no longer stand the pain). Try heat wraps. If not getting better, talk to your doctor.

For more information on back pain, check out the NIH fact sheet on back pain HERE.

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