How to Manage Neck and Back Pain

Two NewYork-Presbyterian spine experts discuss how to manage neck and back pain in adults, and when you may need to consider surgery.

Many people have experienced the annoying aches and pains of a stiff back. In fact, research shows that some 83 million days of work are lost per year due to back pain. Additionally, some studies note that neck pain affects 30% to 50% of adults in the general population in any given year.

Given how common it is, many people might assume that neck and back pain is a normal part of life. But it doesn’t have to be. The best way to manage neck and back pain, according to experts from NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine, is by staying active and strengthening your spine in safe ways.

“I often tell my patients that rest is rust, motion is lotion, and movement is medicine,” says Dr. Michael Saulle, a sports medicine and rehabilitation specialist with Och Spine and an assistant professor of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Being mindful of how you’re carrying yourself in your day-to-day activities and understanding how your posture and different stressors can potentially cause neck and back pain may help you minimize the risk of injuries.

“One of the most common reasons people develop back and neck issues is a lack of exercise, and that has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” says Dr. Roger Härtl, co-director of Och Spine and a neurosurgeon with New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

“Most spine problems don’t require surgery, and the last thing we want is for patients to end up undergoing surgery when they could have been treated with something that is much less invasive,” notes Dr. Härtl. “That’s why I always encourage my patients, with or without surgery, to try to stay in shape to prevent further problems related to their spine.”

Here, Dr. Härtl and Dr. Saulle share with Health Matters five tips to help people manage neck and back pain and keep their spine healthy.

Sit Up Straight

Good posture is key to a healthy and pain-free back. “Your mother probably used to tell you to sit up straight, and she was right,” says Dr. Saulle. For people who spend much of their day at a desk in front of a computer or looking down at a device, maintaining good posture is especially important. “When we slouch, we’re taking our spine and crunching it, putting too much pressure on our discs,” explains Dr. Saulle. “Our muscles are working way too hard to keep us in this position. Over time, the pressure becomes cumulative and can lead to back injuries and back problems.”

Do These Simple Home Exercises

You don’t need a full gym to exercise your back and neck muscles. You can do many great exercises at home. “These are some of my favorite exercises and tips that I give to my patients,” says Dr. Härtl.

  • When you’re sitting, put a little pillow behind your back so you’re sitting straight.
  • To work on posture control, stand with your back against a wall, tuck your feet against the wall, and then touch the wall with the back of your head. This will give you relief and ease up the muscles in your back. Do this four or five times a day.
  • Support your neck at night. Put something under your neck that supports it, but doesn’t bend forward. Try to have it slightly raised with a pillow.

Strengthen Your Core

“There are muscles that surround the spine, which are really the main support system that gives the spine stability and helps it maintain its good alignment. These muscles are your core,” says Dr. Saulle. While core strength is important to spine health, learning the right exercises are a crucial first step in long-term success. There are a number of easy exercises people can do to strengthen their core. “Working with a physical therapist or doing simple exercises, such as hamstring stretches or planking, can teach a person how to easily activate these muscles and strengthen them, which is one of the best ways to strengthen the spine to prevent injury.”

Maintain a Consistently Healthy Lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle can go a long way in keeping a person free from back and neck pain. Watching your weight, having good sleep habits, and staying active will help prevent back pain along with offering many other health benefits. Dr. Saulle likes to remind patients that in order to feel their best, they need to fully embrace this lifestyle.

Surgery Can Be a Good Option — But It’s Not the Only One

“Surgery is a great solution for the right patients at the right time, but it’s not always the necessary thing to do,” says Dr. Härtl. Some conditions, like a herniated disc, may require a minimally invasive operation where doctors take the pressure off the nerve. “In those cases, these patients do very well. They go home the same day, and they’re essentially cured after the surgery,” he says.

“For many patients, there are a lot of nonsurgical options such as physical therapy, injections, yoga, or Pilates,” says Dr. Härtl. “Those are all things that can be tremendously helpful in keeping a spine healthy without surgery.”

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