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When should you see a spine surgeon?

Spine surgeons know that your spine is one of the most critical parts of your body, because it protects the spinal cord – that essential collection of nerves that carry messages from your brain to the rest of the body. It also plays an important role in supporting your posture, especially your head and neck.

If you have severe or chronic back or spine pain, it’s likely that you’ve seen some kind of doctor to try to reduce pain, increase mobility or both. But when should you see a spine surgeon?

Spine surgery is typically only pursued when pain or mobility have a significant impact on a patient’s day-to-day life and after many other non-surgical solutions have been exhausted. But that doesn’t mean you need to wait until you feel like you’re out of options to see a spine surgeon.

Our team of neck and spine surgeons and physiatrists specialize in the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of neck and spine disorders including – but not limited to – surgery. Their expertise extends to non-surgical spine care using conservative methods such as physical therapy, interventional spine care, and injections.

Seeing a spine surgeon who takes this approach will give you the most options for your care. They will use important diagnostic techniques to make the most informed recommendations and work closely with each patient to gain a deep understanding of symptoms, overall health and lifestyle, as well as short and long-term goals.

The Importance of a Comprehensive Diagnosis Before Recommending Spine Surgery

A spine surgeon and their team will use a physical exam, various imaging and other diagnostic techniques to pinpoint the source of pain and identify any clear anatomical abnormality that may be pinching a nerve or causing instability. Common conditions that may prompt a recommendation for surgery include:

Spinal Stenosis: which puts pressure on the spinal cord due to a narrowing of the spinal column

Disks Abnormalities such as degeneration, herniation or rupture of the disks, which act as the cushions between the bones of the spine.

Fractures: including microfractures caused by osteoporosis, or more significant fractures that often come from a trauma, such as a car accident.

Spondylolisthesis: where a bone or bones slips forward onto the bone below it.

But sometimes there is no visible anatomic problem. In these instances, an orthopedic spine surgeon generally will not recommend surgery, because there is simply not a clear problem that could benefit from surgical correction. There are, of course, always exceptions, which is one of the many reasons why it’s so important to see an orthopedic spine surgeon who has a wide array of expertise.

The most holistic spine surgeons look at the whole patient and make it a priority to provide non-surgical options before they recommend surgery, ensuring that spine surgery is not used as a ‘fishing expedition’ for the source of pain.

A thorough examination will reveal the proper course of treatment is right for you.

Non-surgical solutions include:

        • • Changes in activity levels that incorporate periodic stretches, massages and rest periods
        • • Heat and ice treatments
        • • Aspirin or NSAIDS
        • • Oral or steroid injections can reduce the underlying inflammation causing the discomfort.
        • • Physical therapy to help your body’s structural support system reduce back strain

There are also minimally-invasive surgical procedures to consider. Minimally invasive procedures typically focus on backbone surgeries that target herniated discs, fractured vertebrae, spinal infections, deformities or instability.

Given the smaller incisions of these procedures, their smaller impact to adjoining muscles and soft tissue tends to lead to less pain and a quicker post-surgery recovery.

Minimally invasive procedures include:

      • • Lumbar decompression: Removing portions of bone or a herniated disk to relieve pressure on spinal nerves
      • • Spinal fusion: Fusing together damaged vertebrae to create a single stable bone
      • • Discectomy: Removal of a back or neck disk
      • • Laminectomy: Removal of the back part of a vertebrae to create space for spinal nerve

If you’re considering seeing a spine surgeon, look for a fellowship-trained, board-certified expert that does more than surgery. Dr. Michael Shen uses the most recent conservative methods and surgically the most up to date technology and techniques to treat all disorders of the neck, mid-back and lower back.

Best Spine Surgeon

Michael Shen, MD

Dr. Michael Shen


Treatment Options for Low Back Pain

Low Back Pain

Shovel Again? Protect Your Spine and Joints

Dr. Jacobson demonstrates how to shovel correctly.

  1. Keep your arms close to your body and use your core for strength and stability.
  2. Make small scoops, especially with heavy, wet snow.
  3. Avoid throwing snow great distances. Instead, push the snow.
  4. Pace yourself. Shoveling is cardio and strength training rolled into one.
  5. Purchase a good shovel, one that allows for a hand grip closer to the shovel head for better lifting.
low back pain exercise, Denver back pain specialists

How I love this spine of mine

The spine is one of the most amazing and important parts of the human body – it’s both strong and flexible at the same time – often more than we even know. We put strain on our spines in the course of everyday life and most of the time, our strong backbones can handle it. But if you’ve had back pain, you know that when something goes wrong it can be debilitating. If not, you’ll want to make sure you do everything you can to stay active and pain free. How? Give your spine the love that it needs! Here are a few simple ways to prevent injury and maintain a strong, healthy spine:

Take care of your whole self. Not surprisingly, spine health is tied to whole body health. This rule applies to just about any body part. If you get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and consume a healthy diet, your whole body will feel better and do better. If you drink (alcohol) or use tobacco, those are big factors too. Minimize alcohol consumption, and talk to your primary care physician about resources to help you quit smoking.

Get moving. Did you know that exercise helps your body long after you’ve finished a workout? In addition to supporting an increased metabolic rate, regular exercise maintains essential blood flow which carries nutrients to all of your muscles and bones. And even moderate weight training builds muscle strength which provides balanced support for your core.

At the very least, it’s important to avoid sitting for extended periods of time, which has been shown to be as harmful to your body as smoking! Schedule short breaks on your calendar when at work, and try to take a moment to stand and stretch when traveling (only when it’s been deemed safe to get up and move!) Moving also helps you to check and reset your posture. Poor posture puts extra strain on your spine and can lead to or exacerbate back and neck pain. Use that same timer at work to do a ‘posture check’ to make sure you are not slouching. Be mindful too of when and how you use your cell phone or tablet. It’s hard to believe, but according to NBC’s Today Show, we exert up to 60 pounds of force on our necks by tilting our heads forward, in the way that many of us do when checking our phones! Think about that the next time your head is buried in an app.

#BeActive, but be smart too. People who are already active and regularly getting plenty of exercise are on the right track, but you can have too much of a good thing. No matter what your sport or level of competition, you have to be smart. Always start with a good warm up. Don’t show up to the start of a 5K without a warmup jog, and don’t tee off on the first hole without spending some time on the driving range first! Get your muscles warm and then do some stretching – never stretch first.

Next, know your limits. It’s ok to push yourself and aim for that new “PB” (personal best), but don’t push too far. How far is too far? That’s a question that only you can answer, but keep in mind that increases in intensity should be incremental and not exponential. For example, if you typically exercise for 30 minutes, try 40 or 45 before you go to an hour. Be especially aware of moderate increase when strength training and doing high-intensity workouts.

Finally, mix it up every now and then! Alternate high impact with low impact activities. Mix in a day of anaerobic (strength) training with your aerobic workouts. Runners often find that repeated long runs – especially when done on concrete or other hard surfaces – put strain on the lower spine. Add in a day of biking, strength training or swimming to give your body a break!

Our spines are one of the most important parts of our skeletal systems, so take good care of it and it will take good care of you!