If you’re wondering how to relieve back pain fast, you might think a direct trip to the spine surgeon is your best bet. After all, why not go straight to the expert, right?
Not so quick. If you’re looking for the fastest way to cure lower back pain or the most effective treatment for your neck pain, the odds are that you won’t ever need to see a Denver spine surgeon. In fact, up to 90% of spine pain resolves within 3 months.
While finding the right treatment for your back pain or neck pain isn’t always a straight-forward journey, there is a well-documented process (called a standard of care) that you and your healthcare provider should follow. This will help ensure that you’re getting the right care at the right time and in the most efficient way possible. Because it is medically proven to be the most effective way to treat back and neck pain, it’s also likely that your insurance will require you to follow these steps.
Continue reading this guide to learn the path to finding how to relieve your back and neck pain fast. This guide covers:
- Step 1: Rule out Red Flags of Back and Neck Pain
- Step 2: Treat Your Neck and Back Pain at Home
- Step 3: Time to See a Back Doctor in Denver
- Step 4: When to Use Medical Pain Management
- Step 5: Considering Spine Surgery
- Step 6: Consider Getting a Second Opinion about Spine Surgery
Step 1: Rule Out Red Flags of Back and Neck Pain
The majority of back and neck pain do not warrant an emergency.
In fact, less than 5% of ER visits are for spine pain. If you are wondering if you should go to the ER for back pain or neck pain, pay attention to back pain red flags and neck pain emergency symptoms. If you experience any of these symptoms–particularly if they occur suddenly or are very intense–you should seek immediate medical attention:
- Severe pain if you are younger than 18 or older than 55
- Tingling or numbness in the arms, hands, legs or feet
- Weakness or loss of function in the arms or legs
- Loss of balance, clumsiness, or other coordination problems
- Loss of fine motor skills
- Bowel or bladder dysfunction
- Tingling or numbness in the saddle (crotch/inner thighs) area
- Inability to stand or walk
- Back pain that radiates to the abdomen
- Unexplained weight loss accompanied by back or neck pain
- Fever or chills
Step 2: Treat Your Back and Neck Pain at Home
Back pain and neck pain ranges from uncomfortable to debilitating. No matter how intense, most people want to find relief quickly so they can get back to their normal activities. The good news is that the majority of back and neck pain is temporary and goes away in less than 6 weeks – sometimes in just days. Unless you are experiencing any of the back pain red flags or emergency neck pain symptoms listed above, you can safely start treating your spine pain at home.
Back and neck pain can occur from either an underlying condition, such as a herniated disc, or it can occur suddenly, usually as a result of some action, such as sleeping in a bad position or lifting something heavy.
The most common causes of lower back pain or neck pain are:
- Aging – degeneration of the spinal vertebrae or the cushioning discs in between occurs with age
- Genetics – studies show that 30-68% of back pain may be related to inherited conditions
- Obesity – extra weight can cause damage and wear and tear to the spine. Improper back or neck twisting or usage – common activities such as sleeping in the wrong position, weeding your garden, or lifting something heavy can result in pain
Even with an underlying cause, most back and neck pain lasts only a few days or weeks, and resolves on its own with some minor home care. The most effective ways to treat acute back or neck pain at home are:
- Ice or heat for back pain? “Should I use ice or heat for lower back pain?” is one of the most common questions I get in my practice. The general recommendation is to use ice immediately after the injury or when the pain first arises, then apply heat later (2 days or more past the initial onset). However, patients are surprised to hear that both ice and heat work equally well, so do what feels best for you. If heat helps right away, stick with that. If it’s 90 degrees outside, you might want to use ice and that’s OK, too. Remember to never put ice or heat directly on your skin and to only apply ice or heat for 20 minutes at a time, allowing your body time to readjust to normal temperatures between applications.
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen? Most spine pain arises from inflammation or is made worse due to inflammation, so an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen is best. If you cannot take ibuprofen, acetaminophen can help alleviate pain. This article from GoodRx Health outlines dosage recommendations, but call your healthcare provider to find out if you can use more or should use less than standard recommendations.
- Rest or stay active? In the past, doctors might have recommended bed rest for back pain. But we now know that gentle movement helps your muscles avoid stiffness and keeps your joints lubricated. That doesn’t mean that you should continue running or lifting heavy boxes, but gentle movement like walking will actually help you recover quicker. If, however, your pain is so severe that you cannot move after 1-2 days of bed rest, you should seek medical attention.
- Over-the-counter topical pain relief? Pain relieving patches, ointments and creams, as well as Epsom salt have been shown to provide relief for many people with acute back or neck pain. Depending on the usage and application, these types of home remedies can reduce inflammation and relax muscles, all of which aid in pain relief.
- Will acupuncture help relieve back pain? Acupuncture, massage, yoga, tai chi, and other alternative therapies have been shown to provide relief for many people with back or neck pain. If you used these types of activities before your pain started and they don’t make it worse, feel free to continue but be sure to tell your provider or teacher of your injury.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine outlines research on acupuncture, cupping, biofeedback, oral and topical over-the-counter medications and found that the herb cayenne, used topically, may help to relieve low-back pain. Cayenne contains capsaicin, which is a natural pain reliever.
If you decide to seek medical care for your back pain or neck pain early on, be cautious about recommendations for imaging, such as x-rays or MRIs, as the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Congress of Neurological Surgeons recommends against it for non-specific acute pain. You also should be cautious and consider a second opinion if back surgery is recommended early on before conservative treatment has been tried unless an emergency spine condition has been diagnosed.
We consider back or neck pain as chronic pain if it lasts 12 weeks or longer and does not get better with home care. At Neurosurgery One, we recommend seeking medical care if your pain has persisted for more than 2 weeks so that we can begin conservative treatments, such as physical therapy, and rule out any emergency problems.
Step 3: Time to See a Back Doctor in Denver
When your pain persists for longer than 2 weeks or if it’s interfering with your normal daily activities, it’s time to consider seeing a back doctor. You can see your primary care provider or, if your insurance allows, you can schedule an appointment directly with the Neurosurgery One Spine Center.
Why should you see Neurosurgery One for your back pain or neck pain? There are several advantages to coming directly to the Neurosurgery One Spine Center in Denver (we have multiple locations across Denver):
- We use a team approach to provide comprehensive care in a streamlined but medically sound process. Your spine team at Neurosurgery One includes spine surgeons, interventional pain management physicians, advanced practice providers, and specialists in spine surgery education and bone health.
- By offering complete spine care – including interventional pain management and spine surgery, if needed – we can expedite your care, making sure you get the right care at the right time.
- After establishing as a new patient, you will be able to schedule appointments or contact us with questions at any point without delay.
When you seek the care of a back doctor for your back pain or neck pain whether through your primary care provider or with Neurosurgery One, you are likely to first be seen by an advanced practice provider (APP) such as a physician assistant or nurse practitioner. Our APPs have specialized training with spine conditions and work directly with our physicians. There are many reasons for choosing an APP for your care, particularly as part of a comprehensive spine care team. One of the most important reasons is to get your care started as quickly as possible—our spine center APPs typically can see new patients within 3 days compared to 3 weeks to see a physician.
Whether you see a physician or an APP, certain steps must be taken to start treating your back pain or neck pain. You can expect the following on your initial visit:
- Physical exam and medical history
- Imaging (if you’ve had pain for longer than 6 weeks)
- Goal setting
- Preliminary diagnosis
- Referral for treatment, which may be conservative therapies such as physical therapy, interventional pain management, or in some case, surgery
Step 4: When to Use Medical Pain Management
Back or neck pain that lingers for more than 3 months may signal that it’s time to consider pain management, which includes interventional pain management, a medical subspecialty devoted to the treatment of chronic and acute pain. Using minimally invasive procedures that do not require surgery on your spine, our board-certified physiatrists can treat many types of back and neck pain.
When compared with spine surgery, interventional pain management techniques are less invasive, have shorter recovery times, and come with lower risks of side effects such as bleeding and infection. Pain management procedures also can provide relief from your pain to allow you to exercise and make other lifestyle changes that can help improve your underlying condition.
Neurosurgery One physiatrists are specially trained in electromyography (EMG), which we use to identify if there is damage due to a pinched nerve in the spine. This allows us to determine an informed treatment plan for your back or neck pain.
There are a few main categories of interventional pain management we use at Neurosurgery One:
- Injections: These can be diagnostic injections to help us pinpoint your pain or therapeutic injections that use steroids to reduce inflammation in the spine and provide enough pain relief for patients to participate in conservative treatment, such as physical therapy and make other lifestyle changes.
- Nerve blocks: These are injections of local anesthetic into a group of nerves to control acute pain.
- Radiofrequency ablation: This is a minimally invasive procedure that uses heat to destroy the nerve that is transmitting pain signals to the brain.
- Neuromodulation: This pain management treatment uses electricity to interrupt pain signals on their way to the brain. The electricity is delivered through a device that is implanted through a minimally invasive procedure near the spinal column.
To learn more about these procedures, expected results and whether you are a candidate, download our free guide on interventional pain management.
Step 5: Considering Spine Surgery
If conservative treatments and interventional pain management have not helped relieve your back or neck pain, you may be referred for spine surgery. Unlike in the past when complex surgery requiring long hospital stays were the norm, we now perform half of all spine surgeries on an outpatient basis with patients safely returning home the same day. In fact, we perform many of our surgeries in ambulatory surgery centers that specialize in these types of procedures.
If you have chronic back or neck pain that is negatively impacting your life, you may be a candidate for spine surgery. However, surgery is rarely recommended before other treatments have been tried. Before recommending surgery, your Denver spine surgeon will ask:
- Have you had imaging tests such as X-ray, CT, or MRI of your spine and diagnostic injections?
- Has a structural cause of your pain been identified?
- Does your pain greatly diminish your quality of life or activity level?
- Have you tried physical therapy? (It is important to note that physical therapy is not appropriate for all spine conditions.)
- Have you tried medications to reduce inflammation, relax supporting muscles, and/or reduce pain?
- Have you tried steroid injections or other nonsurgical pain management procedures?
- Have you tried, if appropriate, an interventional pain management procedure?
If you are considering spine surgery, it’s important to know what to look for in a spine surgeon and spine surgery center. Download this checklist to help you ask the right questions.
Step 6: Consider Getting A Second Opinion About Spine Surgery
If you choose a back or neck pain treatment option, whether it be interventional pain management or spine surgery, you should feel confident in your decision. Studies show that the more confidence you have in your physician and treatment options, the better outcome you will have.
This study shows that second opinions, especially in relation to spine surgery, can reduce unnecessary procedures and costs, ensuring that you are on the right path to back or neck pain relief. Second opinions are also sometimes required by insurance.
At Neurosurgery One, we routinely provide second opinions, and we help our patient obtain second opinions if they would like one or their insurance requires it. If you are interested in getting a second opinion, we can review imaging and medical records and meet with you in person, or if you are a Colorado resident, in some cases, we can provide telehealth second opinions for Colorado residents. Schedule a second opinion appointment with Neurosurgery One.