What causes unbearable back pain?

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What should you do about back pain? And if you need an op, what are the available procedures? We've put together a guide to help you determine what could work for you

You have unbearable back pain

There’s a 70% chance you’ll need surgery. Get to a doctor quickly if you notice any of the symptoms listed below. A quick reaction could save your life and prevent paralysis.

Red flag

The following symptoms indicate dangerous back pain that must not be ignored:

  • If you’re under 20 or over 65 and suddenly experience severe back pain, it could be a tumour or another serious cause. Acute back pain in teenagers or the elderly can’t generally be ascribed to the usual causes.
  • Pain in the upper back. Lower back pain is common but it’s unusual in the upper back or chest.
  • Weakness in the legs. If you suddenly can’t walk, stand up straight or climb stairs.
  • Back pain accompanied by illness (fever, weight loss).
  • Back pain that’s worse at night.
  • Deformation of the spine, especially a hunched back (kyphosis). The doctor will ask the patient to bend forwards and will look at the back from the side to determine whether this is the cause.

The operation will probably be either the injection of bone cement into the damaged vertebra, or a spinal fusion.

PROCEDUREInjection of BONE CEMENT (vertebro and kyphoplasty)

Bone cement is injected into broken or damaged vertebrae. The hardened cement seals the breaks, relieves pain and separates collapsed vertebrae. It's usually performed on older people with osteoporosis fractures.

PATIENT'S AVERAGE AGEOlder than 50
DURATIONLess than 1 hour
RECOVERY TIME1 week
SUCCESS RATE90%
TOTAL COSTR25 000 - R50 000

PROCEDURESPINAL FUSION

Permanently connecting the vertebrae above and below a damaged disc by means of screws and a bone transplant.

PATIENT'S AVERAGE AGE30-65 years
DURATION3-4 hours
RECOVERY TIME6-12 weeks
SUCCESS RATE70%
TOTAL COSTR80 000-R100 000


Injection of bone cement


Spinal fusion

(This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS magazine, Autumn 2008. Buy the latest copy, on newsstands now, for more fascinating stories from the world of health and wellness.)

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Ouch, my back aches

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