How to Avoid Surgery for Back Pain

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If you've ever suffered from serious back pain, you know promises of instant relief are tempting. But treating back pain is tricky: Narcotics mask pain without fixing the problem, and they can be addictive. The other quick fix, surgery, is often ineffective and costly. Despite the downsides, a recent study found that both drugs and surgery for back pain are on the rise, despite industry guidelines that promote more conservative approaches like ibuprofen and physical therapy. "Our society demands instant solutions, but back pain doesn't play by those rules," says study leader John Mafi of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

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"Most patients with new-onset back pain will recover within a few months with minimal intervention," says Mafi, who offers a few recommendations. Instead of rushing to a back specialist, you should go back to your general doctor to rule out serious issues and take naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil) twice a day for two weeks to decrease inflammation. Then, if the pain persists, go to physical therapy. If, after a few weeks of therapy, the pain persists, only then should you see a specialist to consider imaging as well as other treatment options. Why not rush to get the MRI first? Once you get the results, your doctor is likely to find something to fix, according to the study. Indeed, patients who get MRIs for diagnosis are eight times more likely to opt for pricey surgery, even if they don't need it.

"Patients should remember the pain will get better with time," says Mafi. "Costly tests and heavy medication should not be the go-to solution."

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