Neurology and Neurosurgery

How do I know if my back or neck pain is serious?

How do I know if my back or neck pain is serious?

By Scott Sanderson, MD, Chief of Neurosurgery, Danbury Hospital


Many of you may know how piercing pain in your back or neck feels. It can be unbearable. Many times, this type of pain seemingly comes out of nowhere, or after a simple movement like bending down to tie a shoe. Other times, some people may be able to pinpoint how the injury occurred whether from a car accident, fall or lifting something heavy.

This type of spine pain is very common. Experts estimate that more than 80 percent of people in the United States experience back pain at some point in their lives.  

When is back or neck pain serious?

 It is usually good to see a primary care clinician for an initial evaluation if you have:
  • New onset back or neck pain that stays localized in that area
  • No pain radiating down the arms, back, buttocks or legs

This type of spine pain can happen for a variety of reasons including disc irritation or a pinched nerve. Many people describe it by saying “I threw my back out.”


Speaking from personal experience, this type of pain can feel catastrophic and you may be inclined to go to the emergency department. However, it usually gets better with a course of strong anti-inflammatory medication or muscle relaxants and local treatment, such as heat or ice.


See a spine specialist like a neurosurgeon for a back or neck injury if:

  • The pain does not go away within two weeks
  • The pain worsens
  • You have pain radiating down one or both arms or legs or your back or buttocks
  • You have arm or leg numbness or weakness
  • You are unsteady when you stand or walk
  • You have new bladder or bowel incontinence


Book an appointment directly online with Dr. Scott Sanderson.


You may need urgent medical attention if you have spine pain after a traumatic event where you hit your head, neck or back.


What does a neurosurgeon do?

While we specialize in neurosurgery, neurosurgeons at Nuvance Health take a conservative approach to recommending surgery. In fact, most people do not need surgery for spine problems, and we will not recommend it if there are other reasonable treatment options.


You can expect our neurosurgeons to make astute, individualized recommendations based on a thorough examination, patient history, and imaging such as X-rays, CT scans and MRIs.


It is also important for us to develop a care plan that supports your lifestyle goals so you not only feel better but also maintain your quality of life.


Neurosurgeons are in a unique position to accurately determine the source of a symptom from our training in neurology, and understand the anatomy of an injury from our surgical training.


For example, many people with a cervical spine (neck) injury have pain in the shoulder blade. They understandably think it is a shoulder or upper back problem and first see an orthopedist, physiatrist, physical therapist or pain management specialist before a spine specialist.


Speaking of these specialties, neurosurgeons collaborate with many talented specialists because spine care is a team sport. After a diagnosis, we connect patients with appropriate, well-rounded care options. 


Spinal injury treatment plans

If you have a back or neck injury, you can trust our neurosurgeons to exercise caution, consider all your options, and guide you through the process to get better.


Non-surgical spine treatment

The good news is there are many non-surgical ways to manage spine injuries ranging from oral or injectable steroids to reduce inflammation and pain, physical therapy, spinal cord stimulation, chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage and more.


Spine surgery

We may recommend surgery if we are worried about nerve damage, or if you tried several other non-surgical options without improvement. Also good news: There are more innovative and less aggressive options for spine surgery now than ever before. These include minimally invasive procedures like robotic-guided spinal fusion.


Minimally invasive spine surgery

Robotic technology is a great option for people who need spinal fusion to treat a herniated disc or spinal instability. Patient benefits from robotic technology compared to traditional, open spinal fusion include:

  • Shorter hospital stay after surgery
  • Less post-operative pain
  • Faster recovery


Minimally invasive procedures may also be a safe option for people who are not candidates for traditional, open surgery due to their age or other medical conditions.


We also offer artificial disc replacement as an alternative to spinal fusion for patients who meet criteria, which can result in having more mobility in the spine post-surgery.


The bottom line: Back and neck pain is very common; if you have it, you are not alone. Rest assured there are many options to help you feel better. Seeing a primary care clinician for isolated spine pain is a great first step. Be aware of red flag symptoms to know when to see a neurosurgeon who will discuss your options, connect you to care and resources, and support you on your road to recovery.


Learn more about neurosurgery and schedule an appointment with a Nuvance Health neurosurgeon in New York or Connecticut.


Dr. Scott Sanderson is a board-certified, fellowship-trained neurosurgeon. He specializes in the surgical treatment of brain tumors and trauma, and degenerative and traumatic spine diseases. Book an appointment directly online with Dr. Sanderson.

Scott Sanderson, MD, Nuvance Health neurosurgeon and Chief of Neurosurgery at Danbury Hospital