Before Considering Spinal Surgery, Read This!
Maybe you’ve been dealing with neck or low back pain for years and maybe you’ve even started to feel pain or burning down the arms or legs. Now the pain may have progressed to the point where you’re considering surgery. Hopefully you’ve had a lengthy discussion with your doctor about the pros and cons of surgery. You should have a good understand of the risks involved, the likelihood of success, and most importantly alternative treatments. If your doctor has not discussed alternatives with you, I strongly recommend you do the research on your own and this is a great place to start!
Unfortunately almost 20% of patients undergoing spinal surgery require a second spinal surgery and as the number of surgeries increases, the rate of success drastically decreases. A recent review of the literature also suggests that spinal fusions are not as effective in the long term as other nonsurgical therapy, providing only temporary, short-term relief. The thing about health that most people don’t realize is that it’s not something that you reach, like a goal. It’s a continuum, and each choice you make either moves you closer toward health or closer towards disease. We need to stop solely focusing on the next weeks to months and start also considering the next years to decades. Surgery may in the short term provide some relief but in the long term it can have other effects. For example with a spinal fusion, which involves a procedure that allows for two or more bones in your neck or low back to grow together, relief may occur as the surgery can help take some stress off the soft tissue. However, it’s important to realize that this changes the biomechanics of the spine completely. Those two or three bones were designed to slide back and forth or side to side over each other. By fusing them together, you stop that normal motion. The lack of motion can then put increased stress on the joints above and below leading to further degeneration.
Due to the increase in failed back syndrome and the likelihood for complications later on in life, undergoing surgery should be an absolute last case scenario (as should pain injections but that’s a whole other blog post). So before taking that step, make sure you’ve considered all your options! And what are they you may ask – read below for four great alternatives!
1. Weight loss – The typical American diet consists of a lot of processed foods that contain many inflammatory ingredients, combine that with our increasingly sedentary lifestyle and you have the perfect combination for weight gain and weak core musculature. Low back and neck pain can be perpetuated by an imbalance in the muscles in our body as well as by increased inflammation from our diets. Start by clean eating! Eliminate refined sugars and processed grains. Avoid anything that comes in a bag, box, or can as best as you can and eat foods in their most natural state. When you’re at the grocery store, as you put things into your cart, ask yourself if the thing you’re holding could be directly found in nature. If not, put it back and move on! By cutting out the inflammation causing foods in our diet, we can start to reduce the inflammation in our bodies. Chronic inflammation perpetuates pain so by decreasing inflammation with better food choices, we’re naturally practicing pain management. If you need help with these changes, Naturopaths, Functional Medicine Specialist, and Certified Health Coaches can help get you started and keep you on track!
2. Core strengthening – Once you’ve figured out an anti-inflammatory diet that works for you, you can start to focus on exercises to help improve your core strength. Check out this video for three specific exercises that with help target all aspects of your core muscles. (Hint: it’s not just about the abdominals!) You can certainly work these muscles on your own but also participating in yoga, Pilates, and 1 on 1 kettlebell training can help bring increased expertise and accountability to your workouts!
3. Myofascial release – As we carry stress on our bodies, certain muscles have a tendency to tighten up to support our spines to prevent further damage. Bodywork like myofascial release can be a great way to lengthen and remodel the soft tissue. As we start to strengthen our weak muscles, we need to also stretch and release the tight muscles to restore proper muscular balance.
4. Upper cervical chiropractic care – Most surgeries are performed to correct degenerative/arthritic changes in the spine. But how did our spine get to that point in the first place? When we’ve had an accident or injury in our life, it creates an unstable position in the spine. Since our body is incredible adaptable, it starts to make changes to protect its most vital structures – the brain and spinal cord. These changes are also known as degenerative disc disease or arthritis. So what can we do to stop those changes from occurring? We re-stabilize the spine! In my office, we accomplish this with a very gentle and very specific adjustment to the top of the spine. The precision in the NUCCA work (a type of upper cervical chiropractic) helps to take as much stress off the spine as possible to slow down and even stop degenerative changes from taking place. In fact, undergoing NUCCA care is a great way to prevent these changes from occurring in the first place. If you’ve had an accident or injury in the past and haven’t had your spine assessed by an upper cervical chiropractor, I highly recommend this as your first step before undergoing surgery!
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