Back pain is common, but when is it too much?

Patricia Short never dreamed she would be able to walk out in the fields to pick blueberries again after suffering from years of excruciating back pain.

After falling off a 6-foot wall near her home in Cedar Hill, Tenn., she found herself suffering from chronic back pain, causing her to have severe pain in the lower right side of her body and forcing her to walk with a permanent limp.

Today, back pain is one of the most common ailments among Americans, affecting millions each year. Complex back pain, when pain is chronic and extends beyond the acute, temporary pain caused by a muscle or ligament injury, often warrants advanced treatment methods and possibly a surgical intervention. Knowing when to take a backache serious is the key to preventing long-term damage.

“If you’re at the point where the pain isn’t something you can live with for the rest of your life, it’s time to see a doctor,” Short said.

Dr. Brian O’Shaughnessy, neurosurgeon with Baptist Hospital, specializes in complex spinal surgery and treating deformities of the spine, including scoliosis and kyphosis.

“Back pain is a terribly common problem, affecting millions of Americans, and is a major cause of people being out of work,” Dr. O’Shaughnessy said. “As a spine surgeon, I look to help those patients who require non-operative care to get them back to normal life, but more commonly I see those patients who have significant structural problems with their spine and need to be treated by surgical intervention.”

There are two types of complex back pain. The first is that caused by a primary deformity of their spine, such as scoliosis or kyphosis. And the second is suffered by patients who have had a prior surgery and are not recovering well.

Short fell into the second category.

“In a revision spine candidate, like Mrs. Short, they often have tremendous pain — back pain and or leg pain — and all of this together can lead to a significant impairment of their quality of life,” Dr. O’Shaughnessy added.

After consistently visiting a chiropractor for several years following her accident, Short decided her pain was no longer a normal backache and it was time to see a physician. She underwent two failed back surgeries before being referred to Dr. O’Shaughnessy.

Many severe cases like Short’s require surgical intervention to realign the spinal column or fuse together vertebrae, but according to Dr. O’Shaughnessy, there are everyday measures that can help prevent this type of invasive treatment.

“Eating a well-balanced diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, regular exercise and stretching are all things you can do to avoid everyday back pain,” he said.

Today, with the help of regular outpatient physical therapy, Short is largely pain free, being able to sit comfortably and stand for significant periods of time. She’s also completely off her pain medications and back to living a healthy lifestyle.

“I can walk without any pain now,” she said. “I can walk out into my fields to pick blueberries again and that, to me, is a miracle.

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