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Health hotline: Back pain can be mitigated with various efforts

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12 2013 2:05 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — There is usually a solution to neck, back and leg pain, especially if it is brought on by pinched nerves, injury or improper posture over time.

"It is surprising to see how many people think it is normal to live with pain, and also how many don't know where to go or what to do to get help," said Esther Smith, a physical therapist at the Intermountain Orthopedic and Spine Therapy Clinic at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.

Smith and Dr. Justin Hohl, an orthopedic surgeon with Intermountain's The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital, kept busy with a slew of calls Saturday morning, during the Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Health Hotline, which dealt with neck, back and leg pain.

With back pain being the most common among callers, Hohl and Smith frequently recommended in-office physical examinations, and in some cases MRI imaging to help diagnose the source of pain.

Before surgery — which can provide almost instantaneous relief from a compressed nerve — Hohl said he almost always employs other methods first. He said if steroid injections, medications or physical therapy don't mitigate the problem, "and you're still miserable, that's when I recommend surgery."

"If the pain is manageable, surgery is not necessary," Hohl said.

A lot of the time, getting the pressure off the pinched nerve in the back can relieve associated leg pain as well.

Smith said those experiencing pain may or may not need surgery, but should always be checked out by a physician to better understand what is causing the pain. She likes to make patients responsible for their own care, specifically prescribing individualized exercises that allow them to work out at home and get better over time.

For individuals who continue to have pain following surgery or other interventions, Smith said a physical therapist can help them to understand their physical limitations and know where the pain is coming from.

"If they get a tailored exercise program, they often see pain relief and increased functional mobility," she said, adding that patients need to be seen in person to know what exercises they can tolerate. A second visit is often necessary to make sure what is prescribed is actually doing some good.

"Certain exercises will build better posture and the ability to sit right over time," she said. "With practice, you'll get better at it."

Hohl said that keeping a person's weight down may have the biggest impact in preventing recurrent back pain and pinched nerve issues, but the spine is so intricate that any segment can break down at any time. He said a 1/4 of patients who already had back surgery will need it again after 10 years, as another level of the spinal column may experience the same deficiencies.

Both physicians are available at their respective offices for additional information. Hohl can be reached at 801-314-2225 or online, at www.intermountainspine.com, and Smith can be contacted at 801-507-2050.

The health hotline is offered to readers through a partnership between Intermountain Healthcare and the Deseret News. It covers a different health topic the second Saturday of each month.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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