Spinal injuries can be among the most devastating conditions caused by a traumatic event. Even a relatively “minor” spine injury can cause intense pain and impairment. And once the spine has been damaged, it can be incredibly difficult for the injured person to obtain relief.
Just as spinal injuries vary in type and severity, treatment options span the full spectrum from non-invasive management to open surgical procedures. If you suffer from a neck or back injury, your doctor can explain your options to you; here are a few of the more common alternatives:
Pain medication is often the first treatment option due to its availability and ease of administration. Medication is used for acute pain in the immediate aftermath of an injury, as well as for chronic pain management. There are dozens of options, from common over-the-counter painkillers to potent prescription-only controlled substances, and each works a little differently. Unfortunately, many painkillers can be habit-forming and carry serious risks with long-term use.
Physical therapy is another common intervention for many spinal injury patients. The purpose of physical therapy is to evaluate the extent of an injury and to decrease pain and limitation by strengthening the body and encouraging movement. Physical therapy can be a difficult and discouraging experience for many patients, however, sometimes causing a fair amount of pain before any benefits are realized.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, is a treatment in which electrical impulses are applied to nerves exiting the spinal column. Similarly, electrical muscle stimulators (EMS) are used to apply impulses to muscles in the back and neck. It is thought that these impulses disrupt certain chemical and neurological pathways that cause pain and swelling, thereby promoting relief and healing.
Back surgery (or neck surgery) is often a last resort after more conservative methods have failed, and not all patients are candidates for surgery. In addition to ordinary surgical risks, like an adverse reaction to anesthesia, blood loss, or infection, spinal surgery carries the risk of causing more damage to the spinal cord or major nerves. Surgical options can range from minimally invasive to full open procedures, and include discectomy, fusion, and/or decompression. In some cases, a spinal cord stimulator may be implanted in an attempt to block pain signals from the spinal cord.
All in all, there are many alternatives for chronic pain caused by a spinal injury. Patients, with the guidance of their doctors, need to consider the risks and benefits of each option.