3 Things to Know About Spine Disorders
Spine disorders, or damage to the spinal cord, are commonly caused by trauma to the spine, degeneration or even genetic abnormalities. From bulging discs and chronic low back pain to pinched nerves and scoliosis, when left untreated, spine disorders can cause permanent weakness, pain and loss of feeling throughout the body.
Understanding how to care for your spinal injury or condition can feel overwhelming, especially when you’re in severe pain. We spoke with Victor Hsu, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Jefferson Health – Abington, to get a closer look at what spine disorders are and how they can be treated.
Q: Can you explain how spine disorders can cause pain in other parts of the body?
Dr. Hsu: The human body is wired similarly to the electrical system in your house. Think of your spine as a series of light switches: Flipping the kitchen light switch turns just that light on, not the lights in the bathroom or hallway. So if your neck is injured, you might feel pain in the areas that nerve controls, like in your arms or hands. Similarly, nerves in your lumbar spine travel from your brain, through your spinal cord, all the way down to your lower back and then out through your legs— if that portion of your spine is injured, you’ll feel it in your legs.
Your body and your nervous system are just evolved electrical systems. Thanks to imaging, we know where the pain should be located based on which nerve is being compressed. If a light switch is broken, you can switch out the bulb, but it won’t fix the switch. If your leg hurts because of a nerve issue in your back, you could try treating your leg but, until you address the issues in your spine, those symptoms will persist.
Q: Can spinal issues and pain not related to trauma be reversed without surgery?
Dr. Hsu: The most common treatment for spine-related pain, like pain in the arm or elbow, is not surgery. In fact, a lot of my colleagues and I spend most of our time talking people out of surgery because many of these spinal issues will resolve on their own — especially if you give your body the time and strength it needs to recover naturally. For example, if you have a disc herniation, instead of surgery, we would try physical therapy, medication, chiropractic assistance, massage therapy and steroid injections. If your pain doesn’t get better in six weeks to three months after these efforts, that’s an appropriate time to consider surgery. But it’s best to take advice from your healthcare team, who can consider your specific condition and other factors to determine the best care plan for you.
Q: Can you slow the progression of the spine disorder causing your numbness, tingling and pain?
Dr. Hsu: Symptoms like numbness, tingling and pain occur either because of trauma — like a car accident — or because of the degenerative process of aging. Our bodies are machines; our skeletal system is a system of levers that provide structural support. The more we use it, the more it breaks down over time. Degenerative issues are common, but there are ways we can take care of our machines and prevent degeneration from becoming symptomatic. That starts with eating a balanced diet, quitting smoking, going to physical therapy and exercising regularly to boost blood circulation.
Learn more about spine disorders
Our expert discussed spine and spinal cord conditions, pain management and available treatment options.
To watch specific spine-related topics, see the appropriate time stamp and fast forward to that spot in the video.
5:20 - Pain, Numbness & Tingling
16:11 - Scoliosis
22:18 - Non-Surgical Treatment Options
35:24 - Surgical Treatment Options