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The Truth About Back Surgery

So What Does Help? continued...

If you're interested in going to a pain program, look for one certified by CARF (the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities). Most programs are covered (at least in part) by health insurance.

Increasingly, people are turning to pain centers sooner rather than later, say specialists from Texas Back Institute and Dartmouth's Spine Center. Based on their experiences with patients all along the spectrum, they've pinpointed strategies to help keep sufferers with an acute back problem from developing a chronic one:

Limit Narcotics
Unlike anti-inflammatories, the commonly used Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin, and other opioids don't help heal your back. And they can be addictive.

Get Help
if you're emotionally down. Depression makes pain worse.

Set Goals
Tell your health team what you want to be able to do — go to work, drive — so you can make a plan.

Stay Active
When you're on bed rest, your family can begin to see you as the "sick person," which can be hard to reverse. It's also not great for your body (you lose muscle tone) or mind (you get depressed).

As Catherine Johnson found after going through the Dartmouth Spine Center program, even excruciating, life-limiting pain can be overcome. You may have to develop a mantra — "the pain will go away," "moving will make me feel better, not worse" — and you may have to try a number of approaches before you find the one that works. Most of all, you have to keep your skepticism meter set on high, so you won't be derailed by promises that can't be kept — and treatments that won't help.

Finding Dr. Right
With some doctors eager to do surgery you may not need — and that may well not help — it's not always easy to find a competent and caring physician who will do his or her best by you. Some guidelines, starting with two key "don'ts":

Don't trust the Internet.
The doctor ads you see on patient-education sites may have been placed there by publicity agents for hospitals or spine centers, says Dr. Rosen. Often, their real agenda is to promote surgery.

Don't be wowed by big names.
Some prominent surgeons have been implicated in questionable consulting practices. They may be highly skilled, but you want to be sure that whatever treatment is suggested will be best for you, not for a company that's researching a product.

Think local.
Your own family doctor sees back patients before, during, and after treatment. He or she knows which specialists are doing the best jobs in your area. Worried your doc will simply refer you to his golfing buddy? Ask for more than one name, and ask why he likes these physicians best.

Check your state's Website.
Type the name of your state followed by ".gov" and then look for links to "physician licensing" to confirm that the doctor has a current license.

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