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Complex Spinal Conditions

In rare cases, back pain can be a sign of a more serious condition such as an infection or a tumour. These conditions often require surgical treatment.

Mr Blagg has significant expertise in the management and treatment of complex spinal conditions. He is a consultant at The National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and has previously been President of the British Association of Spine Surgeons. You can read more about Mr Blagg’s experience in his profile.

Here are some of the complex spinal conditions that can develop.

Spinal cord compression

Spinal cord compression means there is a pressure on your spinal cord affecting its function. This can happen anywhere in the spinal cord from your neck down to your lower back. The condition commonly affects people over 50 and is often caused by wear and tear.

If you have spinal cord compression, you may experience a loss of balance, general weakness, numbness and feel ‘wobbly’ when getting up in the night. The symptoms can come on gradually and can be confused with signs of ageing. It may or may not cause you pain.

Surgery is often required to take the pressure off the spinal cord. This is known as spinal decompression.

Spinal infection

Spinal infections are rare but very serious. They’re caused by bacteria or a fungal infection that gets into the bloodstream and can occur in either vertebrae, discs or spinal tissue. They can also happen following spinal, pelvic or other surgery.

Infections are more common in people with weaker immune systems so elderly people, intravenous drug users, those with HIV, diabetes or cancer tend to be more at risk. Symptoms of a spinal infection include:

  • High temperature
  • General malaise
  • Loss of appetite or loss of weight
  • Severe back pain
  • Weakness in the arms and legs or muscle spasms
  • Fever and chills
  • Painful or difficulty urinating or a loss of bladder and bowel functions
  • Paralysis

A spinal infection will usually be treated with non-surgical treatment first, including antibiotics or anti-fungal treatment for an extended period of time. In some cases, you may be offered surgery to remove infected tissue and stablise any damage caused by the infection.

Spinal tumours

A spinal tumour occurs within the spinal bones or spinal canal, which is the passage for the spinal cord inside the vertebrae. Sometimes tumours can spread from other parts of your body into the spine and the back may be the first area where you feel symptoms.

Symptoms may include:

  • Severe back pain that spreads to other areas in the body. This tends to get worse at night
  • Difficulty moving around, which may lead to falling over
  • Weakness in the arms and legs
  • A loss of bodily function in your bowel and bladder
  • Loss of appetite or loss of weight

There are different treatments for spinal tumours depending on your individual circumstances and where they’re located. They’re sometimes treated with surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Treatment of complex conditions will often involve a group of clinicians working together to treat the issue in what’s known as a Multidisciplinary Team (MDT).

Spinal Charcot

Spinal Charcot is a rare condition that occurs in people already suffering from a spinal cord injury. With Spinal Charcot you may experience:

  • Severe back pain
  • Difficulty sitting up
  • Curving of the spine
  • Noises from the area when moving
  • A change in bladder function
  • A loss of tightness in the muscles
  • Change in body shape

The condition is progressive, meaning it gets worse over time. An early diagnosis, followed by treatment, can help manage the condition. If left untreated, it can cause further impairments and disability. Surgical treatment, such as a spinal fusion, is often required.