back pain

Surgery isn’t an option for everyone. Sometimes patients have risk factors that are not ideal for them to go through surgery. This Spine Health Awareness Month, we sit down with Suehun Ho, MD, a physiatrist with the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, to discuss nonsurgical treatment options for patients with musculoskeletal pain affecting their muscles, ligaments and tendons, or bones.

“I can help them get their quality of life back so they can function better,” she says.

Dr. Ho practices at the UPMC Outpatient Center in Wexford and the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township. While she sees many older adults with degenerative spine issues at the outpatient center, she treats more acute sports injuries, such as spine stress fractures, in a younger patient population at the Lemieux complex. She also often sees “weekend warriors” who may overdo it and have back or joint pain.

Dr. Ho’s clinical interests are interventional spine procedures, musculoskeletal pain, sports medicine, and electrodiagnostic medicine.

Q: What Are the Most Common Conditions You Treat?

A: Some of the most common conditions I treat include:

  • Arthritis in the hips, shoulders, and knees.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome.
  • Neck and lower back issues, including pinched nerves, spinal stenosis, spinal joint dysfunction, and spondylosis.
  • Bursitis in the shoulders and hips.

I also perform a diagnostic testing procedure called electromyography, or EMG, that evaluates the health of your muscles and the nerves that control them. It allows me to pinpoint a pinched nerve.

Q: What Nonsurgical Spine Treatments Do You Offer?

Suehun Ho, MD, physiatrist, UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

A: It really depends on what’s going on with the patient. If it’s an acute stress reaction, I obviously recommend rest. If it’s a chronic issue, I come up with a care plan that typically first involves sending patients to physical therapy.

There are great physical therapists at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and the UPMC Outpatient Center. I know them well and we are constantly in communication. For instance, if the therapist knows that a patient is going to see me, they will reach out to me if that patient is having issues — and vice versa.

We can also try medicines, such as anti-inflammatories, steroids, anti-seizure medicine for nerve-related pain, and muscle relaxants.

If those don’t work, then we talk about steroid injections, which can go into the spine, joints, or muscles — depending on the condition. They are all fluoroscopy-guided, however my colleagues offer ultrasound-guided injections for treating sports-related injuries.

And, if you have arthritic pain in your back, there’s a minimally invasive procedure called radiofrequency ablation. It provides pain relief for 6 to 18 months, depending on your age. All these therapies can be repeated depending on the initial response.

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Q: What Are the Latest Advancements in Nonsurgical Treatments for Musculoskeletal Issues?

A: Many of my colleagues use innovative nonsurgical treatments for musculoskeletal conditions, including:

  • Genicular nerve blocks/cooled radiofrequency ablation — for patients who are not good candidates for knee replacement surgery and have arthritis pain.
  • Percutaneous ultrasound tenotomy — an ultrasound-guided procedure to repair the tendon.
  • Regenerative injection therapies, including prolotherapy and platelet rich plasma.
  • Spinal cord stimulator — UPMC is conducting trials for patients with chronic pain linked to sciatica and other conditions.

Q: Do You Collaborate With Other Experts at Your Offices?

A: Yes, I also consult with orthopaedic sports medicine colleagues at the UPMC Lemieux Sport Complex, helping them with patients who come to the clinic with back pain.

At the UPMC Outpatient Center in Wexford, we have neurosurgeons and it’s not uncommon for some of my patients to consult with them after receiving injections because they ultimately might need surgery. Providing patients with this comprehensive care at one location is convenient for them. If patients do need surgery, they can undergo it at UPMC Passavant.

I love being able to just walk down the hall to get input from one of our neurosurgeons or speak to a physical therapist. It’s not only convenient for my team, but in-person communication is important for patient care as well.

Q: This Is Spine Health Awareness Month. What Do You Want People to Know About Spine Health?

A: Many people think that core strength is all about the abdominal muscles — but it’s not! Core strength also includes muscles in your back and sides (obliques). Simply put, core strength is everything. To help reduce back pain, be sure to include core strengthening exercises in your daily routine.

If you run into trouble, we are here to help you from a comprehensive standpoint with multiple specialties at the UPMC Outpatient Center in Wexford and the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

To make an appointment with a doctor from the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, call 1-800-533-8762.

About Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

At the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, we strive to improve your function after injury or illness. Through inpatient therapy at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and outpatient therapy at clinics throughout western Pennsylvania, we help patients recover from functional, pain-related, and neurological conditions. The Department of PM&R is a leader in research, therapy, and advanced rehabilitation technology – not only dedicated to providing you with exceptional clinical care, but focused on developing new technologies and treatments to help you achieve mobility and maintain independence.