DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am an 82-year-old woman and have been in excellent health most of my life. In the past year, I have developed a serious back problem. The pain is so severe that I can hardly bear it. It feels like a knife stabbing me in the back in several areas. I have seen three doctors and a pain-management doctor, who has given me two treatments of injections into my spine. Numerous anti-inflammatory medicines have been no help. The only thing I’ve been told is that I have brittle backbones and that they are fracturing. Can you give me any information to help me? – K.S.

I am as sure as I can be that you have osteoporosis of your spine. With spinal osteoporosis, the vertebrae (backbones) become so weak that they cannot support body weight. They collapse. Such collapses are called compression fractures, and they are most painful. More than 1.5 million people, mostly women, suffer such fractures every year in the United States and Canada.

Bending, lifting or coughing can cause an osteoporotic backbone to crumble.

An essential part of treatment is pain relief. If anti-inflammatory medicines – Aleve, Advil, Indocin, Daypro and more – aren’t easing your pain, stronger medicines should be tried. The spinal epidural injections you’re getting could be the answer, even though they haven’t dulled the pain yet.

Kyphoplasty (KEYE-foe-PLAS-tee) might end your pain. A balloon-tipped needle is inserted into the collapsed vertebra, and the balloon is inflated to create a hollow. Then bone cement is injected into the hollow. The bone’s height and integrity is restored, and the pain should leave. Inquire if this treatment is suitable for you.

You also must go on a regimen to fight osteoporosis by taking calcium and vitamin D.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I have been chewing nicotine gum for roughly 12 years now. It appears I have gone from one addiction (cigarettes) to another (nicotine gum). I am 71, and I smoked for 50 years. My health, so far, is good.

What do experts know about the health consequences of chewing this gum for so long a time? Is it safe? Can one get cancer of the stomach from it? – G.F.

The purpose of nicotine gum is to help people get through the withdrawal symptoms that come from abandoning cigarettes. It’s not something that was designed as a substitute habit.

Nicotine gum is less of a threat to health than are cigarettes. Your lungs are spared the devastation that cigarette smoke inflicts on them.

Nicotine, however, is no boon to health. It constricts arteries and can foster artery hardening, so it’s best to break the nicotine-gum habit.

You should be able to do so without as much struggle as it took to break the smoking habit. Chew each stick of gum for less time than you usually do. Start today. Chew for no longer than 10 minutes, and slowly cut down chewing time minute by minute. Further, chew fewer sticks of gum than you were chewing. If you cut back by one stick every few days, you’ll be down to zero in short order.

Substitute sugarless gum for the nicotine gum.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from

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