Q: What is S.A.F.E. all about?
A: S.A.F.E. stands for the Spine Association For Education—an organization committed to educating the public and medical community about the latest advanced therapies available for the treatment of common conditions of the back and spine. To that end, the primary purpose of this S.A.F.E. website is to assist the public and medical community in acquiring a current understanding of today’s advanced therapies, where these therapies fit within the continuum of care, and where these therapies and/or training in these therapies are available. Working on national, regional, and local levels, S.A.F.E. also develops and provides related educational materials for its member physicians to distribute to their peers within the medical community as well as to the general public.
Q: How prevalent are back pain and spine problems today?
A: By age 40, about 60% of all adults have developed some form of degenerative disc disease. By some estimates, 51 million Americans are afflicted with some form of chronic back pain. That said, only about 5% of those sufferers will actually need back surgery.
Q: How many back surgeries are performed in the U.S. annually?
A: It is estimated that there were over 916,000 spinal surgeries performed in the U.S. last year—including more than 400,000 lumbar spinal fusion procedures.
Q: What are the most common causes of back pain and spine problems?
A: Back pain often develops without a specific cause that your doctor can readily identify with a test or imaging study. Typical causes include: muscle or ligament strains caused by heavy lifting or sudden, awkward movements; a ruptured or bulging disk; osteoarthritis, especially in the lower back and associated with spinal stenosis; osteoporosis, which creates brittle vertebrae that are more subject to compression fractures; skeletal irregularities; and severe spinal curvatures such as scoliosis.
Q: Other than general back pain, what are some other typical symptoms?
A: Back and spine problems are often accompanied by: chronic muscle aches, a stabbing or shooting pain, pain that runs down the leg, limited flexibility or range of motion of the back, and an inability to stand up straight.
Q: What can I do at home to treat my back pain?
A: Many back pain sufferers temporarily benefit from applying heat via a hot bath or heating pad. Also, applying cold via an ice pack, ice bag, or cold gel pack can provide some back pain relief. Short periods of rest and over-the-counter pain relievers can be effective. It is also preferable to maintain your normal daily activities—unless heavy lifting is required.
Q: When should I see a doctor about my back pain and/or spine problems?
A: Back pain, especially lower back pain, is incredibly common. Often, if proper care is taken at home, the problem will gradually improve within a few weeks. However, if some improvement isn’t seen after 72 hours, you should see your doctor. You should also consult your doctor if your back pain follows a fall, a blow to your back, or other injury; is associated with a fever and/or throbbing in the abdomen; or causes bowel or bladder problems. You should also contact your doctor if your back pain is intense or constant, especially at night; spreads down one or both legs and below the knee; causes weakness, numbness, tingling in one or both legs; accompanies redness and/or swelling of the back; or is accompanied by weight loss.
Q: Is there anything I can do to prevent chronic back pain?
A: The best way to help prevent and/or avoid back pain is to make an effort to keep your back healthy and strong. By exercising regularly, making an effort to build flexibility and muscle strength, and maintaining a healthy weight, you’ll protect and support your back while reducing the stress placed upon it. Being aware of your “body mechanics” can also help reduce the risk of chronic back pain and spine problems. Making an effort to maintain good posture, sitting properly at work in a good chair and changing positions at least every half hour, and remembering to always “lift with your legs” will all benefit your back.
Q: What if my primary care physician says my back pain is serious enough to warrant back surgery? Now what?
A: You’ll probably be referred to a specialist, most likely an orthopedic spine or neurological spine surgeon, who will evaluate your specific back problem(s) and recommend one or more surgical approaches based upon your general health, age, and other relevant factors.
Q: If back surgery turns out to be my best option, what are my chances for a speedy recovery?
A: Obviously, every patient’s situation is different. However, thanks to recent advances in surgical technologies and procedures, significantly shorter surgery times, hospital stays, and recovery times are now possible—as are improved outcomes.
Q: Are there any breakthroughs in back surgery therapies or procedures that I should know about and research?
A: Several new advanced back surgery approaches, including the OLLIF (oblique lateral lumbar interbody fusion) procedure, are both minimally invasive and minimally disruptive, which allow them to be performed on an outpatient basis.
Q: Who are the best candidates for a back surgery procedure like the OLLIF?
A: Because the OLLIF procedure can access all five levels of the lumbar region (L1 through L5), it’s generally suitable for lumbar spinal fusion surgery candidates who suffer from degenerative disc disease (DDD), a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, or spondylolisthesis in the lower back.
Q: How does a new procedure like the OLLIF compare with more traditional, so-called “open” approaches to lumbar spinal fusion surgery?
A: The OLLIF procedure is considered minimally invasive because all it requires is a single 15-mm incision—smaller than a dime. It’s also considered minimally disruptive because it eliminates the need for the surgeon to retract and/or dissect major muscles, blood vessels, ligaments, and bones. Often, it can even be performed as an outpatient procedure.
Q: How does a less invasive, less disruptive procedure like the OLLIF benefit the patient after surgery?
A: Surgeons report that many of their patients are often able to walk, and even return home within a few hours after surgery. They also report that there’s typically reduced pain and discomfort, reduced post-surgery complications, and a faster return to normal activities.