Back and neck pain caused by daily activities, including yard work, repetitive strain, and lifting, can and should be treated very conservatively, at least initially. The current thinking is to allow at least six to eight weeks for the pain to self-resolve. Movement seems to actually be the best medicine most of the time, which is why it’s important to get back to your normal routine as soon as possible.
Temporary pain relief
• Heat can do wonders for managing pain, but don’t overdo it. Apply a heating pad or hot water bottle for only 15 minutes at a time, followed by at least 15 minutes of no heat source.
• Yoga, tai chi, and other gentle, more controlled movement disciplines are a great way to slowly bring motion — and, therefore, recovery — back into your routine.
• An over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, may help you increase your activity level.
• Massage therapy and acupuncture provide relief, but they aren’t cheap and usually not covered by health insurance.
When to see a specialist
I typically recommend seeing a specialist if: A) you’re still having chronic pain after six to eight weeks, or B) pain radiates down into your leg, indicating a more serious condition. That said, there’s never a wrong time to see one. If you have any doubts after a few days of trying to manage the pain on your own, a specialist can determine if physical therapy is the right option for you. Physical therapy still falls within the newer guidelines of conservative treatment, and most insurance plans will cover it.
Only after we’ve given conservative treatment (including physical therapy) an eight-week chance, do we move on to slightly more aggressive therapies. These could consist of diagnostic or therapeutic injections, radiofrequency ablation, and/or advanced imaging studies for the evaluation of possible joint, disk, or nerve damage.
When indicated, a neurosurgeon or orthopedic spine surgeon may be brought on board to assess the benefits and risks of surgery. But this is reserved for patients with advanced pain who do not respond to less aggressive treatment.
Again, a conservative approach is usually the best course of action, but there may be a time to seek help. From diagnosis and physical therapy to medical pain management and surgery, the IU Health Neuroscience Center brings together the best spine care under one roof.