(CBS News) Back pain is one of the most common of human complaints, which is why new treatments in the works are raising so many hopes. Our Sunday Morning Cover Story is reported now by Martha Teichner:
Consider the human spine, in all its glory.
The 24 vertebrae, cushioned by gelatinous discs . . . the little facet joints that help make your back flexible . . . all the ligaments and muscles and nerves.
The spine's elegant complexity is a miracle of engineering, or a curse when something goes wrong.
Eight out of ten Americans will experience debilitating back pain sometime in their lives.
"My pain was very excruciating," said Lenda. "I couldn't walk, I couldn't bend over. I couldn't lie down."
"I'd say, 'Oh Lord, can't you help my back, it does hurt bad' - he didn't help me a bit," said Leila.
And the most common culprit?
"I think most people would think it's the inter-vertebral discs, whether it's herniated or whether it's just worn and arthritic and associated with pain," said Dr. Augustus White, a professor at Harvard Medical School. He has literally written the book on lower back pain.
He says the easiest way to understand a herniated disc is to think of a jelly doughnut: When what Dr. White calls "the jelly" gets squeezed out, it presses on nerves, which can mean excruciating pain. Barring serious illness, the first line of treatment may not be what the patient (who only wants a quick fix) wants to hear.
"You need to make sure the patient doesn't have tumor or infection," said Dr. White, "but once you rule those out, you can be confident that you're not going to harm the patient by saying, 'OK, give yourself four to six weeks.'"
Believe it or not, 90 percent of disc injuries heal themselves after a few weeks, especially with physical therapy. But waiting it out can be torture, and not everybody gets better. So that's where surgery comes in.
More than 1.2 million Americans undergo spinal surgery each year. That's more than TRIPLE the number of coronary by-pass surgeries (415,000), and nearly FOUR TIMES the number of hip replacements (327,000).
Approximately 300,000 of those back surgeries were spinal fusions, where vertebrae are joined surgically so they can't move. They're often held in place, permanently, with metal screws or rods.