What's going on behind your back?

Don't ignore your back pain

Whether you're walking, sleeping, bending, lifting or turning, nearly every daily movement can be affected by the health of your back. When you're in pain, it's critical to find the correct diagnosis as that can affect the management. Read more.

Addressing the Burden of Chronic Back Pain

Comprehensive, multidisciplinary team offers the best options

Chronic back pain costs our nation billions in lost wages, productivity and healthcare services. Costs are also great for individuals who suffer from it. According to the National Institutes of Health, 27 million Americans report having chronic back pain – and this doesn't account for many others who don't seek treatment.

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When does pain become chronic?

Chronic back pain is present for three months or longer, and it is often difficult to diagnose. The underlying cause of the pain can be hard to identify, given the complex nature of the back, which houses numerous muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and discs.

"Symptoms of chronic back pain often overlap, making it even more challenging to diagnose the source of a patient's pain," said Smith Manion, MD, pain management specialist at The University of Kansas Health System's Marc A. Asher, MD, Comprehensive Spine Center. Dr. Manion is also associate professor of anesthesiology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Significant inflammation confuses the diagnosis even more. As one structure becomes aggravated, it can mimic the symptoms of something else."

Treatment options

Chronic back pain is best treated by teams with multiple specialists, including pain management specialists, orthopedic and neurosurgeons and physical medicine specialists. Such teams collaborate to provide the best treatment options for each individual person.

"Implementing various aspects from more than one type of treatment is helpful when trying to alleviate pain," explained Dr. Manion.

Categories of treatment include: 

  • Medication: Prescription and over-the-counter pain relief
  • Physical therapy: Routine therapy involving core stabilization and strength-building
  • Behavior modification: Lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation and weight loss
  • Injections: Numbing medications injected directly into the site of chronic pain
  • Surgery: Minimally invasive and more extensive options

Alternative therapies

Patients may also get some degree of temporary relief from alternative therapies. "Exercise increases a person's pain threshold, along with building strength. We've seen patients get great results with these efforts," said Dr. Manion. "Yoga and Pilates can be very effective, as they are low-impact and include options for all fitness levels."

Other alternative therapies that patients report as helpful include:

"The risk for these therapies is rather low, but they are rarely covered by insurance," said Dr. Manion. "It's not clearly established in scientific literature that any of these significantly help patients with chronic back pain. Although the evidence is not extensive, some studies have supported the benefits."

Working to meet the need

Given the cost of back pain for individuals and society, Dr. Manion says research and treatment options must continue to expand. "Chronic back pain affects how people live. It damages their quality of life by limiting their sleep, work and leisure activities," he said. "We need more options."

At academic medical centers like The University of Kansas Health System, care teams incorporate the latest research on diagnosis, surgical procedures and other therapies into everyday treatments – seeking the best answer for each person.