Dr. Shari Cui

It’s hard to find an adult over the age of 50 who has not had to seek the attention of a doctor – at some point in their lives – for neck or back pain. Spinal disorders, including age-related changes, arthritis, deformity from cancer, and injury, are some of the most common causes for patients to see a physician.

The good news is that not all spine-related issues require the attention of a spine surgeon. In fact, the great majority of spinal complaints can be resolved with plenty of rest and over-the-counter remedies.

So, when is it appropriate to wait things out? When should you see your primary care provider? And when do you need a referral for a spinal specialist? WVU Medicine spine surgeon Shari Cui, MD, explains.

Routine complaints
Most common spinal issues involve some amount of neck and back pain that may be related to an injury or strenuous activity, but we’re often unable to identify one such event that causes things to flare up.

Routine, activity-related aches and pains are usually due to musculoskeletal strain and should be addressed initially with over-the-counter pain remedies, heat or ice, and rest. If there’s no improvement after a few days, your primary care provider may prescribe muscle relaxants or anti-inflammatories for a short period, in addition to physical therapy or chiropractic care.

Arthritis of the spine can also be treated with anti-inflammatories and physical therapy, and by avoiding strenuous activity. Depending on the severity of your arthritis and the specific symptoms you’re experiencing, your primary care provider may refer you to a surgical or non-surgical spinal specialist to discuss other treatment options.

Red flags
Symptoms to watch out for include: numbness, tingling, or pain that runs down an arm or a leg; changes in balance; and loss of dexterity in the hands or feet. Should you show any of these symptoms, it may be due to compression or tightness around the nerve roots or spinal cord, and you should notify your primary care provider. Depending on the evaluation, treatment may involve anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, or a referral to a spine specialist. 

Severe symptoms, such as weakness that does not improve or difficulty with bowel and bladder functions, should be immediately brought to the attention of your doctor, either in clinic or the emergency room.

Spine care providers
Depending on your symptoms, diagnosis, and response to treatment, surgery may or may not be recommended. In a few situations (e.g., trauma, tumors, spinal compression), surgery may be required.

Non-surgical spinal providers offer a variety of treatment recommendations, such as targeted therapy, medication management of pain, and spinal injections. If these non-surgical measures fail and the problem can be addressed surgically, they will then refer you to a spine surgeon for evaluation.

WVU Medicine Spine Center
The WVU Medicine Spine Center is a multidisciplinary group practice featuring surgical and non-surgical providers, neurosurgeons, and orthopaedic spine specialists who address both pediatric and adult spinal disorders.

An initial referral into our system allows a surgeon to review your case, along with x-rays and MRIs, and make initial treatment recommendations if needed. We match you with the appropriate physician for your condition to limit your number of provider visits and ensure that your care is coordinated among multiple departments.

Make an appointment: 855-WVU-CARE