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Published on November 26, 2014

Ouch! What to Do About Neck and Back Pain

SIOUX FALLS (Dec. 1, 2014) – One wrong move and you’ve thrown your back out.  Or, you wake up with your neck so stiff you can barely turn your head. What’s actually causing all that pain and what can you do about it?

Neck and back pain is a top reason that adults visit a physician – second only to upper-respiratory infections. Yet it’s also not uncommon for people to go from specialist to specialist, trying to get their pain resolved.

“Virtually every human being will have back problems at some point in life, yet the vast majority get better on their own,” said Henk Klopper, MD, with Avera Medical Group Neurosurgery.

There are three main reasons for neck and back pain: muscle strains and sprains, disk problems, and arthritis of the spinal joints, said Thomas Ripperda, MD, with Avera Medical Group Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Injuries to your neck or back are most likely when you make a sudden move you’re not prepared for. For example, you bend down to pull a weed, and exert more force than you intended. You hear cries from the backseat of the car, and wrench your neck suddenly, looking back to see what happened. Or, you’ve just lifted something and you suddenly slip and try to catch yourself. “Your brain has not prepared your body for this motion by sending the message to the muscles to contract,” Dr. Ripperda said.

A prolonged, awkward position, like holding the phone between your shoulder and ear, also can cause a painful muscle strain.

“The reason for back pain can be confusing. Even though the most common injury is muscle strain, an MRI often will show some degenerative changes that may or may not be correlated to pain,” Dr. Klopper said.

Everyone experiences disk degeneration with aging. “You can be as young as a teenager, but most people begin to develop some changes in their 30s. Like a car, the longer you have the car, the more you will accumulate scratches and dents,” Dr. Klopper said.

“Most experts believe that frequent muscle spasms are secondary to joint or disk issues,” Dr. Ripperda said. “In other words, a muscle strain might be triggered by an underlying cause.”

When pain strikes, most people try to resolve it at home first. You might want to try ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation. Cold, heat or alternating cold and heat might be helpful as well.

Pain and shutting down function is the body’s way of allowing itself to heal. Symptom control improves function and eases pain during that healing phase, Dr. Ripperda said. “In the vast majority of cases we see improved symptoms and patients are able to function while the body is doing most of the work of healing.”

When more treatment is needed, the Avera Spine Center’s approach is to try conservative, non-surgical methods first. This may include medication, physical therapy and altered activities. “In fact, only 10 to 15 percent of neck and back pain patients require surgery,” Dr. Klopper said.

Spine specialists can provide helpful education on how to prevent pain through strengthening exercises, and prescribe medications to control flare-ups when they occur.

When surgery is required, there are a variety of approaches based on the complexity of disease.

Minimally invasive spinal surgeries can correct narrowing caused by arthritis or disk herniation. “This is the most success we have in spine surgery. We go in through a small tube inserted in a small incision, and remove the material that is pressing on the nerve. The incision is much smaller than in the past and recovery is faster,” Dr. Klopper said.

While surgery does not stop the progression of arthritis or degenerative disk disease, it can give patients years of pain-free living, allowing them to remain active at work or play.

To learn more, go to or call the Avera spine navigator at 605-322-8805.

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