Tag Archives: disability

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches can be debilitating, and, in some cases, chronic.  In this post, we will look at some of the symptoms of migraines, how they are diagnosed, and some common treatments for migraines.

Overview

Migraines are characterized by severe headaches that usually involve throbbing pain felt on one side of the head, and can be accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and/or sensitivity to light and sound.

Migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world, and can interfere with an individual’s ability to work and complete day-to-day activities, especially for those suffering from chronic migraines.  Some studies have determined that healthcare and lost productivity costs associated with migraines may be as high as $36 billion annually.  Migraines can affect anyone—in the U.S. 18% of migraine sufferers are women, 6% are men, and 10% are children.  They are more common in individuals aged 25 to 55 and in those with family members that also suffer from migraines.[1]

Symptoms

Migraine symptoms, frequency, and length vary from person to person.  However, they usually have four stages:

Prodrome: This occurs one or two days before a migraine attack and can include mood changes, food cravings, neck stiffness, frequent yawning, increased thirst and urination, and constipation.

Aura: This stage can occur before or during a migraine attack.  Auras are usually  visual disturbances (flashes of light, wavy or zigzag vision, seeing spots or other shapes, or vision loss.  There can also be sensory (pins and needles, numbness or weakness on one side of the body, hearing noises), motor (jerking), or speech (difficulty speaking) disturbances.  While auras often occur 10 to 15 minutes before a headache, they can occur anywhere from a day to a few minutes before a migraine attack.  Typically, an aura goes away after the migraine attack, but in some cases, it lasts for a week or more afterwards (this is called persistent aura without infarction).

Migraine: The migraine itself consists of some or all of the following symptoms:

    • Pain on one or both sides of the head that often begins as a dull pain but becomes throbbing
    • Sensitivity to light, sound, odors, or sensations
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Blurred vision
    • Dizziness and/or fainting
    • Migrainous stroke or migrainous infraction (in rare cases)

Post-drome: This stage follows a migraine and can include confusion, mental dullness, dizziness,  neck pain, and the need for more sleep.

A migraine can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and there are several classifications of migraines, including:

  • Classic migraine – migraine with aura
  • Common migraine – migraine without aura
  • Chronic migraine – a headache occurring at least 15 days per month, for at least three months, eight of which have features of a migraine
  • Status migraine – (status migrainosus) a severe migraine attack that lasts for longer than 3 days

Causes

The exact causes of migraines are not clearly understood but involve abnormal brain activity, including (1) changes in the brain stem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve and (2) imbalances in brain chemicals, including serotonin.  Migraines are most often triggered by:

  • Food and food additives (often salty or aged food, MSG, meats with nitrites, aspartame)
  • Skipping meals
  • Drink (alcohol, caffeine, caffeine withdrawal)
  • Sensory stimuli (bright or flashing lights, strong odors, loud noises)
  • Hormonal changes or hormone medication such as birth control
  • Certain other medications
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Strenuous exercise or other physical stress
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Changes in weather

Co-occurrence

Migraines have been shown to co-occur with several other conditions[2], including:

Treatment

There are a variety of options that doctors employ to both treat and prevent migraine attacks.

  • Pain-relieving medications (both over the counter and prescription)
  • Preventative medications (which can include antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and seizure medications)
  • Botox
  • Transcutaneous supraorbital nerve stimulation (t-SNS) (a headband-like device with attached electrodes)
  • Acupuncture
  • Biofeedback
  • Massage therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Herbs, vitamins, and minerals
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Sticking to a sleep schedule
  • Exercise
  • Avoidance of known triggers

Doctors also sometimes recommend keeping a headache diary, similar to a pain journal, which can help you track the frequency of your migraines and may help identify triggers.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

Cedars-Sinai, https://www.cedars-sinai.edu
Healthline, www.healthline.com
Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org
MedlinePlus, www.medlineplus.gov

 

[1] Migraine Research Foundation, About Migraine, http://migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine/migraine-facts/

[2] Wang, Shuu-Jiun, et. al., Comorbidities of Migraine, Frontiers in Neurology, Aug. 23, 2010, http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fneur.2010.00016/full

[3] Id. (citing Von Korff M., et. al., Chronic spinal pain and physical-mental comorbidity in the United States: results from the national comorbidity survey replication, Pain 113, 331-330 (2005).

Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 6 – Degenerative Disc Disease

In this series, we have been examining spine-related musculoskeletal conditions.  In this post, we will be looking at degenerative disc disease.

Degenerative Disc Disease

Definition: Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is the breakdown in the size and cushioning of the intervertebral discs.

Overview: The name of the condition is actually somewhat of a misnomer – it is not actually a “disease”, but rather a condition that is characterized by the degeneration of the intervertebral discs over time.  Over time, the pressure and wear of repetitive use can cause discs to lose some of their water content and volume, reducing their ability to cushion and insulate the vertebrae from one another.

Symptoms: The symptoms most commonly associated with DDD are chronic pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling in the extremities, and reduced flexibility in the spine. Not all people with intervertebral disc degeneration, however, experience pain or other symptoms.  This is due to the fact that the degeneration of the discs, by itself, does not bring on the symptoms described above. However, as disc degeneration becomes more severe, it can lead to other conditions that bring on the symptoms people normally associate with DDD (e.g., pain, numbness and tingling, weakness, etc.).  Some of the conditions commonly associated with DDD are spinal osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and foraminal stenosis.

Causes: Reduction in the size and cushioning of your discs is part of the normal process of aging, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have shown that almost everyone over the age of 60 has degeneration of their intervertebral discs to some degree.[1]  Not all people with disc degeneration have back pain or other symptoms – in fact, individuals with relatively mild disc degeneration may experience no symptoms whatsoever.

However, age is not the only factor in DDD.  Deterioration of the intervertebral discs can be accelerated and exacerbated by other factors.  The culprit in many severe cases of DDD is stress-related damage in the form of repetitive use, trauma, injury, poor posture, poor movement, and obesity.  Among these, one of the most common factors is repetitive use.  For example, the repetitive, static posture of a dentist during clinical procedures creates (1) compressive forces on the cervical discs due to neck flexion, and (2) compressive forces on the lumbar discs due to axial loading.  When these compressive forces are applied year after year on a daily basis, the result can be an accelerated deterioration of the intervertebral discs.

Diagnosis: Diagnosis will generally begin with a physical exam in which the physician will perform a variety of tests to evaluate the patient’s strength and range of motion.  If the physical tests indicate DDD, an MRI is typically ordered to measure the disc space and check for cartilage erosion.

Treatment: Because DDD can cause such a broad range of symptoms and subsequent conditions, the treatment options vary widely.  Depending on the circumstances, treatment can range from conservative options such as physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications to surgical intervention in the form of a discectomy, laminectomy, laminoplasty, or spinal fusion.

Our next and final post in this series will discuss myelopathy.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

[1] Degenerative Disc Disease, Arthritis Foundation, http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/degenerative-disc-disease/

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

 

Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 5 – Disc Bulge, Disc Herniation, and Disc Protrusion

Our posts in this series have been reviewing spine-related musculoskeletal conditions that are frequently seen in dentists and surgeons.  In this post, we will be looking at disc bulge, disc herniation, and disc protrusion.

Disc Bulge, Disc Herniation, and Disc Protrusion

Definitions:

  • Disc Bulge: Protrusion of a spinal disc outside the vertebral body that has not fully ruptured through the disc membrane, known as the annulus.
  • Disc Herniation: Protrusion of a spinal disc outside the vertebral body that has ruptured through the annulus, exposing a portion of the nucleus – the gel-like center of the disc.
  • Disc Protrusion: A general term to describe any type of disc bulge or herniation, in which a portion of the disc protrudes beyond the vertebral body.

Overview: A number of terms are used to describe spinal disc pathology and the associated symptoms.  To complicate matters further, there is not a clear consensus among medical professionals about the precise meaning of each term.

There are thirty-three vertebrae in the vertebral column of the human spine, twenty-four of which articulate and move.  Between each of the vertebrae in the three articulating sections of the spine – the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine – there is an intervertebral disc.  Each disc, composed of soft jelly-like center (nucleus) surrounded by a capsule of connective tissue (annulus), provides shock absorption and flexibility within the spine. When the protrusion puts pressure on the spinal cord or a nerve root, it can lead to a wide range of symptoms.

Symptoms: Symptoms will vary based on the location of the disc:

  • Lumbar: Pain radiating down the leg (sciatica) is the most common symptom associated with a lumbar disc herniation. Weakness in the foot and difficulty when raising the big toe (foot drop) and numbness/pain on the top of the foot are also prevalent.
  • Cervical: Pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling in the shoulder, arm, or hand depending on the location of the herniated disc.

Causes: Disc bulges are often the result of the normal process of aging, and by themselves may not cause any recognizable symptoms. Bad posture associated with frequent sitting or standing and occupational hazards such as repetitive bending or standing can accelerate the formation of disc bulges.

Disc herniation is often a progression in severity from a disc bulge.  As discs wear down over time, they may degenerate and lose some of their water content.  This condition, known as Degenerative Disc Disease, is discussed in greater detail below.  As discs degenerate and degrade, they become more flexible and the annulus may be more susceptible to tearing or rupturing.  Disc herniation can also be caused by traumatic, acute injuries such as a hard fall or blow to the back.

Diagnosis:  Diagnosis of a herniated or bulging disc typically begins with a physical exam that tests the patient’s reflexes, muscle strength, walking ability, and sensory perception (light touches, pin pricks, etc.).  If a protrusion is indicated by the physical test, imaging may be ordered in the form of X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and/or Myelograms.

Treatment:  Non-invasive treatment may include heat therapy, exercise, physical therapy, chiropractic treatment, therapeutic ultrasound, and medication.  Epidural steroid injections may be considered as an intermediate treatment.  For more severe cases, a microdiscectomy may be performed, typically in an outpatient setting.  In this procedure, a small portion of bone and/or disc material is removed to relieve pressure on the affected nerve root.

Our next post will discuss degenerative disc disease.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 4 – Spondylolisthesis

In this series of blog posts, we have been reviewing spine-related musculoskeletal conditions.  The next condition we will be looking at is spondylolisthesis.

Spondylolisthesis

Definition: Occurs when a vertebra (typically in the lumbar spine) slides forward over the vertebra beneath it.

Overview:  The vertebrae in the spinal column are linked together by small joints (facets) that permit the spine to bend forward (flexion) and backward (extension) while limiting rotational movement.  Spondylolisthesis occurs when a joint defect in the vertebrae (resulting from either a stress fracture or degeneration) permits one vertebra to slip forward on the one beneath it.

Spondylolisthesis is most common in the lower back, though in rare cases it can occur in the cervical spine.  It most frequently occurs at the L4-L5 and L3-L4 levels of the lumbar spine.

There are two types of spondylolisthesis: isthmic spondylolisthesis (IS) and degenerative spondylolisthesis (DS). IS occurs when a stress fracture of a small bone called the pars interarticularis permits a vertebra to slip forward over the vertebra below it.  IS is rare, and is most common in young children who participate in sports that put repeated stress on the lower back.

DS is far more common and most regularly occurs among people over the age of 50.  DS is a result of the gradual breakdown of the intervertebral discs and the facet joints in the spine.  As the discs lose volume, more stress and pressure is placed on the facet joints.  As the facet joints begin to degrade under the increased wear and pressure, they may allow too much flexion and cause a vertebra to slip forward over the vertebral body below it.

The slippage can place direct pressure on the spinal cord (spinal stenosis) and on the nerve roots exiting the spinal column (foraminal stenosis).

Symptoms: Lower back pain, leg pain (especially “running down” the leg), and sciatic pain are common.  Numbness or weakness often occurs in one or both legs.  Leg/back pain that is worse when bending over or twisting is common, as is pain that is worse standing than sitting.

Causes: Degenerative disc disease is a common cause of spondylolisthesis.  As we discussed above, when the intervertebral discs lose volume the spinal column becomes more compressed.  Without the shock absorption of the discs, more pressure is exerted on the facet joints.  This pressure and wear accelerates the degradation of the facets and allows for the increased flexion in the spine that can lead to vertebral slippage.  As clinical dentistry has moved from a standing profession to a seated one, dentists are at a higher risk for lower back conditions like spondylolisthesis.  Axial loading (the weight of the body compressing the spine vertically) on the lumbar spine is significantly higher in a seated position than it is standing.

Diagnosis: X-rays are used to determine whether or not a vertebra is out of place.  If the displaced vertebra is putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots, a CT scan may be ordered to identify the severity of the problem.

Treatment: As with many other conditions discussed in this series, conservative treatment may include some combination of physical therapy, exercise, strength training, manual manipulation, and medication.  Epidural steroid injections are sometimes prescribed for those in severe pain.  Spinal fusion surgery is sometimes used for severe pain that has not been successfully treated with less invasive treatment.  Typically, a posterior fusion with a pedicle screw implementation is used, but a surgeon may also recommend a spinal fusion done from the font of the spine simultaneously.

Our next post in the series will examine disc bulge, disc herniation, and disc protrusion.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 3 – Stenosis

In this series, we have been looking at spine-related musculoskeletal conditions that many dentists and surgeons suffer from.  In this post, we will be looking at spinal and foraminal stenosis.

Cervical Spinal Stenosis:

Definition: The narrowing of the spinal canal in the cervical vertebrae, often due to inflammation of the surrounding cartilage and tissue.

Overview: The spinal canal is formed by the hollow spaces in the middle of the vertebrae, which form a protective tunnel for the spinal cord to pass through the spinal column. Cervical spinal stenosis is a progressive and potentially dangerous condition that occurs when inflammation narrows the cervical spinal canal. The narrowing of this already tight space can result in direct pressure on the spinal cord, leading to a number of neurological complications.  Cervical spinal stenosis can be crippling if the spinal cord becomes damaged.

Symptoms: Symptoms usually develop gradually over time and can include numbness, weakness, tingling in neck, shoulders, arms, hands, or legs, as well as intermittent, sharp pain in the arms and legs, especially when bending forward.  Deterioration of fine motor skills and issues with gait and balance can also occur.  In more severe cases, bladder and bowel issues may develop.

Causes: Though in rare cases cervical spinal stenosis is a congenital condition, it often results from inflammation due to other spinal conditions, such as spinal osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, and disc bulging.

Diagnosis: A combination of X-ray, MRI, and computed tomography (CT) scans may be used to diagnose spinal stenosis.  Blood tests may be used to eliminate other diseases such as multiple sclerosis and vitamin B12 deficiency.

Treatment: Conservative, non-invasive treatments may include exercise, physical therapy, and activity modification.  Medications may include anti-inflammatory drugs, narcotic pain medication, muscle relaxers, and epidural steroid injections.  In more severe cases, several surgical options exist, dependent upon the particular characteristics of the patient’s condition:

  1. Anterior cervical discectomy/corpectomy with fusion (ADCF): The spine is accessed through the front of the patient’s neck, the disc is removed from between the two vertebrae, and the vertebrae are then fused together to stabilize the spine.
  2. Laminectomy: This is a “decompression” surgical procedure performed to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. In this surgery, the lamina (the rear portion of the vertebra covering the spinal canal) is removed from the affected vertebra to enlarge the spinal canal and decrease pressure on the spinal cord.
  3. Interspinous Process Spacers: In this procedure, small metal spacers are surgically placed between the vertebrae to restore the spacing typically created by a healthy disc. This procedure is typically reserved for individuals with foraminal stenosis, however, and has only had limited effectiveness with patients suffering from spinal stenosis.

Foraminal Stenosis

Definition: Compression of the nerve roots connected to the spinal cord, caused by the narrowing of the passageway through which the nerves exit the spinal column.

Overview: The nerve roots branching off the spinal cord to other parts of the body exit the spinal column through small openings on the sides of the vertebrae called a foramen. This space can become clogged or narrowed due to a number of spine-related conditions. The narrowing or partial obstruction of the foraminal canal caused by one of these conditions can put pressure on the nerve roots emerging from the spinal column, and may lead to an array of neurological symptoms that get progressively worse over time.

Symptoms: Tingling, numbness, or weakness in the feet or hands.  Local pain in the extremities.  “Pins and needles” or burning sensation. Intermittent neck or back pain.

Causes: Bulging or herniated discs may obstruct the foraminal canal, putting pressure on the nerve roots.  It can also be caused by spinal osteoarthritis, osteophytes, and spondylolisthesis.  Dentists are susceptible to foraminal stenosis, as they often hold their necks in extended positions.

Diagnosis: A CT scan and a Myelogram are used to diagnose foraminal stenosis. A Myelogram is an X-ray in which an opaque dye (which shows up on the X-ray) is injected into the sac around the nerve roots. The dye moves through the foramina, allowing the doctor to see the degree to which the foramen is narrowed or obstructed.

Treatments: Conservative treatments may include physical therapy, stretching and strength training, and oral pain-relieving medication. Corticosteroid injections are an option for more severe cases to reduce inflammation and pain.  In extreme cases, a surgical procedure known as a foraminotomy may be used to remove the bone spur or disc material that is putting pressure on the nerve root as it exits the spinal column through the foramen.

Our next post in this series will discuss spondylolisthesis.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 2 – Spinal Osteoarthritis

In the first part of this series, we discussed the fact that dentists and surgeons often suffer from musculoskeletal conditions.  In the remaining posts in this series, we will be looking at particular musculoskeletal conditions, starting with spinal osteoarthritis.

Spinal Osteoarthritis

Definition: Spinal osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease. It is a breakdown of the cartilage in the facet joints, which link together the spine’s vertebrae.

Overview: At the top and bottom of each vertebra is a small pair of joints called facets. Facets connect the vertebrae in order to restrict movement in certain directions and to allow the spine to move as one fluid unit.  The surfaces of the facets, like any other joint in the human body, are covered by a lubricating cartilage which allows them to operate smoothly and with little friction.

When the cartilage protecting the facets degrades or wears down, the bony surfaces of the facets rub against each other.  This can cause inflammation, severe pain, and the formation of osteophytes (bone spurs) on or around the joint surfaces.  It may also cause numbness and/or weakness in the legs and arms as a result of contact between the vertebrae and the nerves leaving the spinal cord.

Symptoms: Neck pain and stiffness. Severe pain may radiate down into shoulders and up the neck.  Weakness, numbness, or tingling in the fingers, hands, and/or arms are also often present.  Usually back discomfort is relieved when a person is lying down.  Studies have also linked anxiety and depression to osteoarthritis.[1]

Causes: Spinal osteoarthritis frequently occurs in conjunction with degenerative disc disease.  As the discs between the vertebrae in the spinal column degrade and decrease in volume, the increased pressure and contact between the facet joints can cause an accelerated degradation of the joint cartilage.

Repetitive strain or stress on the spine, often due to poor posture, to is a common cause of spinal osteoarthritis.  People with jobs requiring repetitive movements and strained positions are considered to be at greater risk for conditions like spinal osteoarthritis; however, injury or trauma to a joint or a genetic defect involving cartilage are also causes.  Dentists are at a higher risk than many other professions to develop this condition due to the awkward, static postures they must maintain.

Diagnosis: X-rays may be used to identify loss of cartilage, bone spurs, and bone damage. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used to analyze the intervertebral discs and the nerves exiting the spinal column.

Treatment: Conservative, non-invasive treatment plans may include some combination of heat/cold therapy, medication, physical therapy, strength training, and stretching. In more severe cases, a surgical treatment such as spinal fusion is utilized.

Our next post in this series will examine spinal stenosis, another common cause of neck and back pain.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

[1] Sharma, A., et. al, Anxiety and depression in patients with osteoarthritis: impact and management challenges, Open Access Rheumatology: Research and Reviews 2016:8 (2016).

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 1 – Spondylosis

Living with a spine-related condition can be scary and overwhelming. Unfortunately, the complex nature of the spine and the nervous system can often make the search for answers a frustrating and demoralizing endeavor.  In this series of posts we are going to talk about several spine-related musculoskeletal conditions, many of which are frequently diagnosed in dentists, surgeons, and other physicians.

If you are suffering from a spine-related condition, you have likely visited not only your primary care physician, but also a physical therapist, a chiropractor, a neurologist, an orthopedic surgeon, and/or a pain management doctor.  It’s common for those suffering from a musculoskeletal condition to hear several different terms to describe a set of symptoms, be given multiple explanations for what is causing their pain, and be given a variety of (often conflicting) treatment recommendations.

Dentists and physicians in certain surgical specialties are particularly susceptible to spine-related musculoskeletal conditions, which are among the top reasons insureds file disability claims.  The forward-flexed, static posture that dentists and surgeons must maintain to perform procedures can lead to the overuse and repetitive strain of the neck and back, and contribute to the development of a litany of musculoskeletal conditions.  One study showed that 62% of the general population present musculoskeletal work-related pain, and this increased to 93% when the sample population was made up entirely of dentists.[1]  Unfortunately, although one often thinks of spinal and back injuries occurring later in life after years of strain, chronic musculoskeletal pain is experienced by many dentists by their third year of dental school.[2]

We’ve created this series of blog posts as a resource to help clear up some of the confusion surrounding the common terms used to refer to spine-related musculoskeletal conditions.  For each term we’ll provide a definition, overview, list of common symptoms, causes, methods of diagnosis, and common treatments. In this post, we’re going to briefly look at spondylosis, and then in later posts we will take a more in depth look at some other spine-related conditions.

Spondylosis

Definition: This is an umbrella term used to broadly describe degeneration in the spine.  Some doctors may use it interchangeably with spinal osteoarthritis.  Spondylosis is a descriptive term rather than a clinical diagnosis – it is used to describe anyone suffering from both pain and spinal degeneration.  If your doctor uses this term to describe your condition, you may want to your physician for a more specific diagnosis.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

[1] Dias, Ana Giselle Aguiar, et. al, Prevalence of repetitive strain injuries/work related musculoskeletal disorders in different specialties of dentists, RGO, Rev. Gauch. Odontol. Vol. 62 no. 2, Campinas Apr./June 2014,  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/1981-8637201400020000042714  (citing Regis Filho GI, Michels G, Sell I. Lesões por esforços repetitivos/distúrbios osteomusculares relacionados ao trabalho em cirurgiões-dentistas. Rev Bras Epidemiol. 2006;9(3):346-59, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1415-790X2006000300009&lng=en).

[2] Kristina Lynch, My back is hurting my practice, Part I, AGD Impact, Feb. 2006.

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.

Are Benefits Taxable?

 

The Answer Is: It Depends

Whether your disability benefit payments are taxable depends on what type of policy or plan you have and how your premiums are paid.  This post is not intended as tax advice—we’ve outlined some basic information below only.  You should always speak with a tax professional regarding your particular situation.

Individual Policies:  These are policies that you purchase yourself.  Generally speaking, if you pay the premiums with after-tax dollars, the benefits you receive are tax free.  However, if you pay with pre-tax dollars or deduct your premiums as a business expense, then your benefits will likely be subject to federal income taxation.

Group Policies: Group policies are those offered through associations such as the ADA or AMA.   These types of policies offer special terms, conditions, and rates to members and function much like individual policies, with similar tax consequences.  Generally speaking, if you pay the premiums (with after-tax dollars) then the benefits you receive are tax free.

Employer-Sponsored Policies: These types of policies can be less straightforward when it comes to taxes, as the payment of premiums can be structured several ways.  According to the IRS website:

  • If your employer pays the premium and does not include the cost of the premiums in your gross income, then benefits you receive will generally be fully taxable.
  • If the employer only offers a policy, but you pay the entire premium without taking a tax deduction, then the benefits you receive will generally be tax-free.
  • If both your employer and you pay the premiums then the tax liability will generally be split.

If you are unsure what type of policy or plan you have, and you think your employer might be paying the premiums, you can look at your application (there is typically a portion that states who is responsible for the premiums) or talk to your HR department.  For more information, talk to your accountant.  You can also go to to the IRS website on disability insurance proceeds to find additional information.

It may be tempting to save money by enrolling only in a plan solely paid for by your employer, paying premiums with pre-tax dollars, or deducting premiums as business expenses.  But keep in mind that, if you do become disabled, the amount of your benefits actually available to you will substantially decrease if you are required to pay income tax on them.

Selecting a policy is an important decision, and how benefits will be taxed is a significant factor to consider. With statistics showing that one in four dentists will be disabled long enough to collect benefits at some point in their careers, choosing to save now could hurt you financially down the road.

Watch Out for “Work” Provisions

In a previous post, we discussed the importance of how your policy defines the key term “total disability,” and provides several examples of “total disability” definitions.  The definition of “total disability” in your policy can be good, bad, or somewhere in-between when it comes to collecting your benefits.

Policies with “true own occupation” provisions are ideal.  Here’s an example of a “true own occupation” provision:

Under this type of provision, you are “totally disabled” if you can’t work in your occupation (for example, you can no longer perform dentistry).  This means that you can still work in a different field and receive your benefits under this type of policy.

Insurance companies often try to make other policies look like true own occupation policies, and include phrases like “own occupation” or “your occupation,” but then tack on additional qualifiers to create more restrictive policies.

One common example of a restriction you should watch out for is a “no work” provision.  Although these provisions can contain the phrase “your occupation” they only pay total disability benefits if you are not working in any occupation.  Here’s an example from an actual policy:

As you can see, under this type of provision, you cannot work in another field and still receive benefits.  This can be problematic if you do not have sufficient disability coverage to meet all of your monthly expenses, as you’re not able to work to supplement your income.

A “no work” provision is something that is relatively easy to recognize and catch, if you read your policy carefully.  Recently, we have come across a definition of “total disability” that is not so easy to spot, but can dramatically impact you ability to collect benefits.  Here’s an example, taken from a 2015 MassMutual policy:

At first glance, this looks like a standard “own-occupation” provision—in fact, it is entitled “Own Occupation Rider.”  But if you take the time to read it more closely, you’ll notice that the second bullet point requires you to be working in another occupation in order to receive “total disability” benefits.

Obviously, this is not a policy you want.  If you have a severely disabling condition, it may prevent you from working in any occupation, placing you in the unfortunate position of being unable to collect your benefits, even though you are clearly disabled and unable to work in any capacity.  Additionally, many professionals have limited training or work history outside their profession, so it can be difficult for them to find alternative employment or transition into another field—particularly later in life.

These “work” provisions appear to be a relatively new phenomenon, and are becoming increasingly more common in the newer policies being issued by insurance companies.  It is crucial that you watch out for these “work” provisions and make sure to read both the policies definition of “own-occupation” and “total disability.”  While many plans contain the phrase “own-occupation”, including this example, they often aren’t true own-occupation policies and you shouldn’t rely on an insurance agent to disclose this information.  Oftentimes, your agent may not even realize all of the ramifications of the language and definitions in the policy that they are selling to you.

Lastly, you’ll also note that this particular provision was not included in the standard “definitions” section of the policy, but was instead attached to the policy as a “rider,” making it even harder to spot.  It’s important to remember that many definitions and provisions that limit coverage are contained in riders, which typically appear at the end of your policy.  Remember, you should read any policy from start to finish before purchasing.

Can Your Disability Insurance Company Dictate The Medical Treatment You Must Receive To Collect Benefits? Part 2

“Regular Care”

If you are a doctor or dentist and you bought your individual disability insurance policy in the 1980s or 1990s, the medical care provision in your policy likely contains some variation of the following language:

Physician’s Care means you are under the regular care and attendance of a physician.”

This type of care provision is probably the least stringent of all the care provisions.  If your policy contains a “regular care” provision, courts have determined that you are under no obligation to minimize or mitigate your disability by undergoing medical treatment.[1]  In other words, you cannot be penalized for refusing to undergo surgery or other procedures—even if the procedure in question is minimally invasive and usually successful.[2]

Let’s look at an actual case involving a “regular care” provision.  In Heller v. Equitable Life Assurance Society, Dr. Stanley Heller was an invasive cardiologist suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome who declined to undergo corrective surgery on his left hand.  Equitable Life refused to pay his disability benefits, insisting that the surgery was routine, low risk, and required by the “regular care” provision of Dr. Heller’s policy.  The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, and determined that the “regular care” provision did not grant Equitable Life the right to scrutinize or direct Dr. Heller’s treatment.  To the contrary, the Court held that “regular care” simply meant that Dr. Heller’s health must be monitored by a treatment provider on a regular basis.[3]

Unfortunately, the Heller case didn’t stop insurance companies from looking for other ways to control policyholders’ care and threaten denial of benefits.  For instance, some disability insurance providers argued that provisions requiring policyholders to “cooperate” with their insurer grants them the right to request that a policyholder undergo surgery.  Remarkably, when insurers employ these tactics, they are interpreting the policy language in the broadest manner possible–even though they know that the laws in virtually every state require that insurance policies be construed narrowly against the insurer.

Why would insurance companies make these sorts of claims when it is likely that they would ultimately lose in court?  Because insurance companies also know that even if their position is wrong, most insureds who are disabled and/or prohibited from working under their disability policy cannot handle the strain and burden of protracted litigation.  They know that if they threaten to deny or terminate benefits, many insureds will seriously consider having surgery—if only to avoid the stress and expense of a lawsuit.  Unfortunately, this can lead to insureds submitting to unwanted medical procedures, despite having no legal obligation to do so.

As time went on, and more and more courts began to hold that “regular care” simply meant that the insured must regularly visit his or her doctor, Unum, Great West, Guardian, and other insurers stopped issuing policies containing that language.  Instead, insurers started to insert “appropriate care” standards into policies.  In the next post, we will discuss this heightened standard and how insurers predictably used it as a vehicle to challenge the judgment of policyholders’ doctors, in a renewed effort to dictate their policyholders’ medical care.

[1] Casson v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 455 A.2d 361, 366-77 (Del. Super. 1982)

[2] North American Acc. Ins. Co. v. Henderson, 170 So. 528, 529-30 (Miss. 1937)

[3] Heller v. Equitable Life Assurance Society, 833 F.2d 1253 (7th Cir. 1987)