TLIF Conservative Alternatives
Most lumbar spine disease is initially treated with conservative options. Common treatments include rest, lifestyle modification, physical therapy, massage, chiropractic care, home exercises, medications, and injections. Treatments may be used in any number or combination, but surgical options, such as TLIF, are considered if the conservative options do not bring relief.
Rest in the context of treatment means avoiding activities that put stress on the lower back, such as lifting weights, poor posture, repetitive bending or lifting. This is generally prescribed for a short duration ranging from a shorter duration of several days up to several weeks. It is important to support the lower back with certain lumbar supports, sitting with support, or laying down. Rest may also include heat therapy with hot showers or heating pads and cold therapy with ice.
Certain lifestyle factors may increase the incidence of a lumbar spine disease, such as smoking and increased weight. Smoking decreases blood flow throughout the body which is needed to repair damaged tissues, including those around a compressed nerve. Cessation may restore blood flow, allowing the tissues to access proper nutrition. Added weight may increase the risk for disc herniation which may pinch the nerve, or the acceleration of the aging process, leading to lumbar spine disease. Reducing weight through a low-calorie diet and exercise can reduce pressure on the spine, decreasing the symptoms of lumbar spine disease.
Repetitive leisure or work-related motions such as excessive bending, lifting, and twisting, along with any activity that may be high impact on the spine, such as running or riding ATVs, can also lead to lumbar spine disease. Some of these repetitive task activities may be due to leisure and others due to demands of a job. For people with full labor or heavy-duty jobs, you may need to change jobs or support your work with proper lifting technique, relaxed breaks, and equipment such as a back brace to avoid worsening symptoms. You may also need to alter or avoid high impact activities, such as running to reduce the symptoms of a lumbar spine disease.
Physical therapy focuses on changing body mechanics to improve posture and walking as well as to strengthen and retrain muscles, particularly those in the core. The initial step is meeting with a Physical Therapist for a consultation to assess posture, gait, and muscle weakness and to design a personalized exercise program. Other techniques that physical therapists may use are manual treatments such as massage, ultrasound, and electro-stimulation through a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit. A combination of these methods can provide symptom relief.
Alternative therapies include massages, chiropractic care, and acupuncture. These may also be referred to as manual therapies since they address the spine with hands on technique. Massage relieves tension in muscles surrounding the spine and in arm and leg muscles experiencing radiating symptoms. These muscles may be under tension due abnormalities with walking and changes in posture due to pain from lumbar spine disease. Chiropractic care may use specific techniques, such as adjusting the spine or application of traction on the spine. Acupuncture may also provide pain relief as muscles are stimulated electrically.
A home exercise program may be used in conjunction with or instead of a formal physical therapy regimen. A daily low impact exercise regimen is important for strengthening muscles, especially those in the core. Low impact cardiovascular activities such as walking, swimming, elliptical, and biking are also important for increasing blood flow and strengthening muscles without adding stress on the spine. Home exercise can also lead to weight loss which may reduce pressure on the spine and reduce symptoms. Home exercise routines should be paired with stretches and physician supervision to avoid harm.
There are multiple types of prescribed and over the counter medications that may be used to treat the symptoms of lumbar spine disease. Some of these medications include Tylenol (acetaminophen), NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), muscle relaxants, nerve membrane stabilizers, topical medications, and off label medications.
Common over the counter medications are acetaminophen and NSAIDs. Acetaminophen is considered an analgesic, meaning it relieves pain but does not reduce inflammation. NSAIDs are effective at both relieving pain and reducing inflammation; they can be found in brand and generic forms over the counter. These medications are best taken with food to avoid an upset stomach. They can be taken for longer durations, as long as there is no history of kidney disease. The mechanism of both NSAIDs and Acetaminophen differ, so they are taken together often to combat pain.
Topical medications may also relieve pain and are available in over the counter and prescription variations. Common over the counter formulations are Salonpas, Icy Hot, Bengay, and Aspercream, which bring localized pain relief to the location where they are applied. Prescription topical medications also provide localized relief and include lidocaine, a numbing medication, and Diclofenac (Voltaren), an anti-inflammatory medication. Topical medications are good options for those that want to avoid or are unable to take oral medications.
Muscle relaxants are used to provide relief from muscle spasms and increase range of motion; they are best used in combination with physical therapy or an exercise/stretching regimen. Drowsiness is a common side effect of muscle relaxants and they are not recommended while driving or working. Common muscle relaxants include Flexeril, Soma, Baclofen, Robaxin, and Tizanidine.
Nerve membrane stabilizers are another class of medications often used to treat the numbness, tingling, shooting, stabbing, or radiating pain associated with lumbar spine disease. Gabapentin (Neurontin) and Lyrica (Pregabalin) are commonly prescribed nerve membrane stabilizers and work by reducing pain signals released by nerves. Both medications, Gabapentin especially, can be taken in higher dosages multiple times per day, but this class of medication may cause dizziness and drowsiness. Nerve membrane stabilizers are typically started on a low and infrequent dose; the dosage is gradually increased until the pain is controlled and then gradually decreased prior to discontinuation.
There are other medications that may be used ‘off-label,’ meaning not for the use listed on the label. Some common medications used off label for pain are anti-depressants, such as Cymbalta and Amitriptyline. Similar to the nerve membrane stabilizers, these medications are slowly increased in dosage and they also target nerve-type pain, such as burning, numbness, and tingling associated with nerve pain. They may also cause drowsiness and are usually used at night for pain control.
Epidural Steroid Injections
Epidural steroid injections reduce pain by injecting steroid, or anti-inflammatory, medication at a specific level/levels in the spine. As the herniation places pressure on a nerve, this causes inflammation of the nerve and surrounding tissue which causes pain. A specialized needle is used to deliver medication to the correct area, past the muscles of the back and as close to the spinal nerves as possible. As steroids are a natural anti-inflammatory, this may reduce the inflammation around the nerve, diminishing pain caused by the disc herniation. Steroid injections have the ability to provide pain relief for up to several months, and provide better pain relief for radiating symptoms, such as leg pain, than treatments designed for back pain alone. Steroid injections are only safe to have completed 3 times in one year and must be at least one month apart between sequential injections. This is due to the muscle and tendon breakdown with exposure to the steroid medication too often or too soon.
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