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Baylor Scott & White Medical Center - Plano

Back Pain Care, Back Pain Causes & Back Bain Relief 
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Understanding Back Pain 

An aching back is hardly a rarity. In fact, experts estimate that up to 90 percent of American adults will have back pain at some point. John Tompkins, M.D., a neurosurgeon on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center - Plano, answers a few common questions about back pain. 

Q: What causes back pain?

A: The three most common causes, Dr. Tompkins says, are:

  • Herniated disc, which can be caused by trauma, such as a car accident, or more often, by a combination of disc degeneration and minor trauma, which can be as simple as lifting a heavy box.
  • Lumbar stenosis, which is caused by a combination of factors that alter the shape and size of the spinal canal, including thickening ligaments, arthritic joints and disc degeneration.
  • Degenerative disc disease, which results from wear and tear, and is common in middle-aged and older adults and manual laborers.  

Q: When should I see a doctor?

A: “If it’s severe, if it’s lasted for more than a few days without a response to anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen, or if you have numbness or weakness, call your doctor,” Dr. Tompkins says.  

If you have significant weakness and bladder or bowel incontinence, go to the ER. That may indicate a nerve root is being badly compressed, which may require immediate treatment. 

Q: Will I need surgery?

A: Probably not. “The vast majority of people can be treated with medications physical therapy and in some cases, steroid or facet joint injections,” Dr. Tompkins says 

Q: How can I reduce my risk?

A: Maintain a healthy weight, and exercise regularly. But if you haven’t exercised in a long time, Dr. Tompkins warns, start slowly, and discuss with your primary care doctor before starting an exercise program.  

He also recommends not smoking, even though it has not been scientifically proven to affect back pain. “But 22 percent of the American adult population smokes, yet close to half of my spine patients are smokers.” Besides, he says, kicking the habit reduces your risk for other health problems.