keeping back pain at bay

Find Relief for Back Pain

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help your back work for you

Help Your Back Work for You

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At University of Utah Health Care we are dedicated to helping people of all ages, with a variety back, neck, and spine conditions, lead pain free, healthy lives again. Whether your spinal problem is a recent occurrence or a long term issue or if you suffer from spinal disease, we provide the highest level of care for the full spectrum of spine conditions. We also have experts that specialize in upper, mid, and lower back pain; spinal deformity;  scoliosis in both adults and children; spine fractures; spinal cord injuries; and tumors of the spine among others. Our goal is to help you decide on the best treatment plan customized to your individual circumstances.


Back and Neck Pain

What is back and neck pain?

Back pain can range from a mild, dull, annoying ache, to persistent, severe, disabling pain. Pain in your back can restrict mobility and interfere with normal functioning and quality of life. You should always consult your health care provider if you have persistent pain.

Neck pain occurs in the area of the cervical vertebrae in your neck. Because of its location and range of motion, your neck is often left unprotected and subject to injury.

Pain in your back or neck area can be acute. That means it comes on suddenly and intensely. Chronic pain lasts for weeks, months, or even years. The pain can be continuous or intermittent.

What causes back and neck pain?

Even with today's technology, the exact cause of back and neck pain is difficult to determine. In most cases, back and neck pain may have many different causes, including any of the following:

  • Overuse, strenuous activity, or improper use, such as repetitive or heavy lifting
  • Trauma, injury, or fractures
  • Degeneration of vertebrae, often caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support your spine, or the effects of aging
  • Infection
  • Abnormal growth, such as a tumor or bone spur
  • Obesity, which places increased weight on your spine, and pressure on your discs
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Muscle tension or spasm
  • Sprain or strain
  • Ligament or muscle tears
  • Joint problems, such as arthritis
  • Smoking
  • Protruding or herniated (slipped) disk and pinched nerve
  • Osteoporosis and compression fractures
  • Congenital (present at birth) abnormalities of your vertebrae and bones
  • Abdominal problems, such as an aortic aneurysm 

What are the symptoms of back and neck pain?

Symptoms associated with back pain may include:

  • Dull, burning, or sharp pain in your back.  The pain can be confined to a single spot or cover a large area
  • Leg numbness or tingling above or below your knee
  • Stiffness or achiness that occurs anywhere along your spine (from your neck to your tailbone)
  • Sharp, shooting pain that radiates from your low back to your buttocks, down the back of  your thigh, and into your calf and toes
  • Consistent ache in the middle or lower part of your back, especially after standing or sitting for an extended period

Loss of bladder and bowel control, with weakness in both legs, are symptoms of a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Symptoms associated with neck pain can be:

  • Arm numbness or tingling
  • Headaches
  • Shoulder pain
  • Sharp shooting pains or a dull aches in your neck

Pain that occurs suddenly in your back or neck, due to an injury, is considered to be acute pain. Acute pain comes on quickly and may leave sooner than chronic back or neck pain. This type of pain should not last more than 6 weeks.

Pain that may come on quickly or slowly and lingers for weeks, 3 months or greater, is considered to be chronic pain. Chronic pain is less common than acute pain.

How are back and neck pain diagnosed?

If you experience neck or back pain, you should see your health care provider for a medical and physical exam. He or she may also do X-rays of the affected areas, as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This allows a more complete view.  The MRI produces pictures of soft tissues as well, such as ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. The MRI could lead to a diagnosis of infection, tumor, inflammation, or pressure on your nerve. Sometimes a blood test may help diagnose arthritis, a condition that can cause back and neck pain.

How are back and neck pain treated?

If you experience acute back or neck pain, it may simply improve with some rest. Over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may also help with the discomfort. You should try to move gently during this period, so that you will not become stiff and lose mobility.

If you have chronic pain of your back and neck, you should try several remedies that may be helpful, before seeking surgical options. These include:

  • Hot or cold packs (under your health care provider’s instructions)
  • Specific exercises to strengthen muscles and ease pain, such as stretching and flexing. Your health care provider can provide and demonstrate these exercises.
  • Aerobic exercise may be permitted and can help with your overall fitness and strength
  • Certain anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants may be used, with your health care provider’s supervision
  • Braces or corsets for extra support
  • Injections for pain relief in the area
  • Nerve block, which decreases pain signals from  the affected nerve
  • Acupuncture


How are back and neck pain managed?

Acute back pain usually gets better without special treatment. Using acetaminophen or ibuprofen will decrease pain and help you rest. Surgery and special exercises are generally not  used with acute pain.

 For severe, disabling, or chronic back and neck pain, rehabilitation programs can be designed to meet your needs. The type of program will depend on the type and severity of your pain, injury, or disease. Active involvement of the patient and family is vital to the success of rehabilitation programs.   

The goal of back and neck rehabilitation is to help you manage disabling pain, return to your highest level of functioning and independence possible, while improving your overall quality of life. The focus of rehabilitation is on relieving pain and improving mobility (movement).

To help reach these goals, back and neck rehabilitation programs may include the following:

  • Exercise programs to improve range of motion, increase muscle strength, improve flexibility and mobility, and increase endurance
  • Help with obtaining assistive devices that promote independence
  • Patient and family education and counseling
  • Pain management techniques
  • Smoking cessation counseling
  • Gait (walking) and movement retraining
  • Stress management
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Ergonomic assessments and work-related injury prevention programs
  • Vocational counseling

What are the complications of neck and back pain?

  • Loss or productivity: Back pain is the most common reason for disability in working adults.
  • Nerve damage: If your back pain is from a herniated disc, pressure on the spinal nerves may cause a variety of problems, such as weakness, numbness, or severe shooting pain that travels from the back to the leg.
  • Depression: Back or neck pain can disrupt all aspects of a person’s life: work, physical exercise, social activities, and sleep. The anxiety and stress caused by the change in mobility and pain can lead to depression.
  • Weight gain: Loss of mobility and inability to exercise can lead to weight gain and the loss of muscle strength.

It is a good idea to see a health care provider if you have numbness or tingling, or if your pain is severe and does not improve with medication and rest. If you have difficulty urinating, weakness, pain, or numbness in your legs, fever, or unintentional weight loss, you should call your health care provider right away.

Can I prevent neck and back pain?

The following may help to prevent back and neck pain:

  • Practice correct lifting techniques: avoid heavy lifting; when you do lift something, bend your legs, keep your back straight, and then slowly lift your body and the object.
  • Properly use telephones, computers, and other equipment.
  • Maintain correct posture while sitting, standing, and sleeping.
  • Exercise regularly. Learn specific back-strengthening exercises to keep your back muscles strong. Warm up with stretching exercises before doing back exercises.
  • Do exercises that improve your balance.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Reduce emotional stress, which may cause muscle tension.
  • Make sure you have enough Vitamin D and calcium in your diet.

When should I call my health care provider?

See your health care provider if you have:

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control, with weakness in both legs.  These symptoms require immediate attention
  • Severe back or neck pain that does not decrease with medication and rest
  • Pain after an injury or a fall
  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in your legs or arms
  • Fever
  • Unintentional weight loss

Key points

  • Back and neck problems range from minor aches to severe, disabling pain
  • Often, the reasons for your pain cannot be identified.
  • See a health care provider if you have numbness or tingling, severe  pain that does not improve with medication and rest, difficulty urinating, weakness, pain, or numbness in your legs, fever, unintentional weight loss, or pain after a fall.
  • Often, back and neck pain will improve over time. Consult with your health care provider if your pain is not decreasing.
  • Use prevention strategies to keep yourself healthy and injury-free.

For severe, disabling, or chronic back pain, consider an individualized rehabilitation program.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Anatomy of the Spine

The vertebral column, also called the backbone, is made up of 33 vertebrae that are separated by spongy disks and classified into 4 distinct areas. The cervical area consists of 7 bony parts in the neck; the thoracic spine consists of 12 bony parts in the back area; the lumbar spine consists of 5 bony segments in the lower back area; 5 sacral* bones; and 4 coccygeal* bones (the number of coccygeal bones can vary from 5 to 3).

(* By adulthood, the 5 sacral vertebrae fuse to form 1 bone, and the 4 coccygeal vertebrae fuse to form 1 bone.)

Joseph G. Cunniff, D.O.

Joseph G. Cunniff, D.C, D.O., received his B.S. from the University of the State of New York in 1984 and his D.C. from Western States Chiropractic College in 1987. After 10 years of private practice he returned to academics and received his D.O. from the Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2002. Following a one-year internship in Internal Me... Read More

Edgar C. Goldston, Jr., M.D.

Edgar C. Goldston, Jr., MD specializes in interventional spinal medicine and spinal diagnostics, as well as the non-operative management of spinal and musculoskeletal disorders. He has strong interests in spine related science and research. Dr. Goldston is actively involved with the development and implementation of the Comprehensive Spine Progra... Read More


Back, Neck, Spine, Spine Evaluation


Clinical Neurosciences Center (801) 585-6065

Pamela A. Hansen, M.D.

Dr. Pamela A. Hansen is board certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, specializing in musculoskeletal sports and spine rehabilitation. Dr. Hansen's clinical interests include rehabilitation of musculoskeletal problems, interventional spine procedures, and electrodiagnostic testing. Special interests include management... Read More

Andrew Harmon, PA-C

Andy joined the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation team as a provider in the outpatient orthopedic clinic at the U of U South Jordan Health Center in December 2013. He works in close collaboration with Dr. Michael Henrie to manage the treatment and rehabilitation needs of people recovering from acute and chronic spine and other orthopedic problem... Read More

A. Michael Henrie, D.O.

A. Michael Henrie, D.O. is a sports medicine physician at the University of Utah. Dr. Henrie received his medical degree from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. He completed a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation followed by a sports and musculoskeletal medicine fellowship at the University of Utah. In addition to wo... Read More

Richard W. Kendall, D.O.

Dr. Richard W. Kendall is a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician who specializes in diagnosis and rehabilitation of back and neck pain using exercise, therapy, interventional spine procedures and electrodiagnositic testing. He has special interest in back and neck pain in cyclists, triathletes, endurance athletes and musculoskeletal rehab... Read More

Sara McEvoy, M.P.A.S.

Sara is excited to return to the University of Utah to join the comprehensive spine care team at the Clinical Neurosciences Center. Prior to her arrival in 2012, Sara spent the previous few years working in internal medicine at the 4th Street Homeless Clinic. She has a strong interest in academic research and is involved in several clinical studies... Read More

Jason T. Montgomery, PA-C

Nationally Certified Physician Assistant who joined the Department of Orthopaedics in July 2010. He completed his training at Jefferson College of Health Sciences, Roanoke, Virginia, and then completed in internship with Central Utah Clinic Cardiology. His undergraduate work was done in the field of behavioral health, at Utah Valley University. Jas... Read More

David J. Petron, M.D.

Dr. David Petron, Assistant Professor (clinical) is a primary care orthopaedic/sports medicine specialist. He originally trained in family practice and then completed a fellowship in primary care orthopaedics and sports medicine at Michigan State University. Dr. Petron is the Director of Primary Care Sports Medicine and the team physician for the U... Read More


Family Medicine, Spine Evaluation, Sports Medicine, Foot and Ankle, Shoulder


UUHC - Park City Ski Clinic (435) 655-7970
University Orthopaedic Center (801) 587-7109

Erica F. Bisson, M.D., M.P.H.

Dr. Erica Bisson specializes in complex spine surgery with a focus on cervical disease (neck pain) , spinal cord injury, spine trauma, and degenerative spinal conditions (neck and back pain). Dr. Bisson obtained her medical degree from Tufts University. She also completed a fellowship in spine surgery at the University of Utah in 2008, and is curre... Read More

Darrel S. Brodke, M.D.

Darrel S. Brodke, MD is a board certified spine specialist with expertise in the care of neck and back problems, including disc herniations, spinal stenosis, degenerative conditions, deformities and trauma of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine. Dr. Brodke received his MD at the University of California, San Francisco, completed an Orthopaedic... Read More

Andrew T. Dailey, M.D.

Andrew T. Dailey, MD specializes in Spine Surgery, Neurosurgery, Skull Base Surgery, Neuro Trauma, and Neuro Critical Care. He treats patients suffering from spinal cord injury, spine trauma, and cervical degenerative disease. Dr. Dailey originally came to the University of Utah in 1998, but left after five years to practice at the University of W... Read More

Robert S. Hood, M.D.

Robert S. Hood, MD is the second-ever resident of the Department of Neurosurgery and has since returned as faculty in September 2010. Prior to joining the department, Dr. Hood built a reputable career in private practice and was well-known for his skill in minimally invasive spine surgery and overall patient care. Dr. Hood also developed a surgical... Read More


Neurosurgery, Neuro Spine Surgery


Clinical Neurosciences Center (801) 585-6065

Brandon Lawrence, M.D.

Dr. Lawrence is a Board Certified Orthopaedic Surgeon specializing in adult and pediatric cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine disorders. Dr. Lawrence focuses his practice in degenerative and traumatic conditions of the spine including disc degeneration and herniation, spinal stenosis, spinal deformity, spinal trauma, spinal tumors and spinal infe... Read More

Joel D. MacDonald, M.D.

Joel MacDonald specializes in Neurosurgery, Spine Surgery, Skull Base Surgery, Head Trauma and Neuro Critical Care.... Read More

Mark A. Mahan, M.D.

Dr. Mahan specializes in complex peripheral nerve surgery, spine surgery and neurologic reconstruction for diseases such as spasticity, spinal cord injury, nerve injury and stroke. Dr. Mark Mahan is a neurosurgeon who specializes in peripheral nerve and spinal disorders. He completed his residency at the internationally recognized Barrow Neurologi... Read More

Meic H. Schmidt, M.D., M.B.A.

Professor Meic H. Schmidt, M.D., M.B.A. is a neurosurgeon with specialized expertise in spine surgery and neuro-oncology. His main clinical focus is on management of patients with tumors and injuries to the brain, spine and spinal cord. In addition, because of his expertise in minimally invasive and endoscopic surgical techniques he sees complex p... Read More

William Ryan Spiker, M.D.

Dr. Spiker treats conditions of the neck and back such as disk herniations, spinal stenosis, cervical myelopathy and deformities of the spine. He believes in the thoughtful use of new technologies, including minimally invasive surgery and image-guided techniques. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University ... Read More

University of Utah Campus

Clinical Neurosciences Center 175 N. Medical Drive East
Salt Lake City, UT 84132
(801) 585-7575
University Orthopaedic Center 590 Wakara Way
Salt Lake City, UT 84108
(801) 587-7109

Community Health Centers

South Jordan Health Center 5126 W. Daybreak Parkway
South Jordan, UT 84095
(801) 213-4500
clinics & locations