The spine is a vital part of your skeleton. Its function in your everyday life might be overlooked, but its role is impressive. The spine supports your head and upper body, allows you to walk, stand straight, balance, bend and twist, and protects your spinal cord.

With all of this activity, it’s no wonder that there are some common spine disorders that arise in many individuals. In fact, back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work, and experts estimate that as much as 80 percent of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives.

The anatomy of the spine

The spine is a curved structure that is made up of a series of small bones called vertebrae, with disks between them that act as a cushion for the bones. In the middle is a central canal that contains the spinal cord and the nerves. These nerves reach out through the vertebrae to send messages between your body and your brain.

Common spine conditions

Like any bones, your spine can become injured or worn down. The following are some of the most common conditions of the spine.

  • Disk degeneration: the disks between the vertebrae become worn, resulting in pain.
  • Osteoarthritis: degeneration of the joint cartilage, often occurring with age and causing pain and stiffness.
  • Sciatica: compression of a large nerve known as the sciatic nerve in the lower back, which can cause pain in the back, hip and leg.
  • Pinched nerve: pressure on a nerve due to surrounding bones or cartilage, and causing pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness.
  • Spinal stenosis:  a narrowing of the spine that puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, resulting in pain, numbness, weakness, or even impaired bladder control.
  • Osteoporosis: bones become weakened and brittle, often with no symptoms until there is a fracture.

Non-surgical treatment of spine pain

There are several ways to treat spinal pain, and of course each individual is different. Working with a spine specialist can help identify the best option for you. Available options are:

  • Medication: A number of medications can be used to alleviate spinal pain, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or Aleve, muscle relaxants, nerve medications, antidepressants and opioids.
  • Physical therapy: Working with a physical therapist can help you focus on core strengthening that can help relieve pain. They can also perform what is known as a range of motion assessment, which can help determine the severity of a patient’s impairment.
  • Psychological treatment: There are different coping, relaxation, and distraction skills that can help patients better manage their chronic low back pain.

Advances in treating spinal disorders

In just the last five years, a number of advances now offer more options for treating spine pain and spine disorders more effectively, without surgery.  

  • Combination approach: The first is a combined approach, in which we use medication, physical therapy, injections, nerve stimulation and cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Neuromodulation: This targeted therapy uses electrical impulses to target the nerves directly to reduce pain in the back, neck, arm and leg.
  • Targeted drug delivery system: This approach uses a pump to deliver pain medication directly to the fluid surrounding the spinal cord. This allows us to use a very small amount of medication to achieve 100 times stronger effects in terms of pain management.

Treatments after surgery

For patients who have had spine surgery but had poor results in terms of pain management, targeted high frequency nerve stimulation may help reduce pain significantly. There is also the option of the targeted drug delivery system in the spine to achieve good pain control when other treatments have failed.

It’s helpful for individuals to understand the general anatomy and function of the spine, and why pain may occur. An expert in spine disorders can offer information and teach strategies for coping with chronic pain. We can also treat the pain that interferes with your quality of life using a comprehensive approach.

Visit our website for more information on the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute and how we can help you with back pain or spine disorders.

Shiqiang "Chris" Tian, MD

Shiqiang "Chris" Tian, MD

Dr. Chris Tian is a physiatrist and pain management specialist with the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute spine program at Rhode Island Hospital.