A back injury can be a scary thing. Many of us are all too aware that damage to the spinal cord can lead to partial or full paralysis, or even death. Fortunately, most common back injuries aren’t anywhere near that drastic. Unfortunately, they can still cause pain, weakness, numbness, and other kinds of discomfort.
As any doctor will tell you knowledge is a powerful tool. If you think you or anyone you love has suffered a back injury, please don’t hesitate to see a doctor. This list is not meant to replace the help of a licensed medical professional. Its purpose is to educate you and give you a better understanding of what the common types of back injuries are, how they are caused, and how they are treated.
Sprains and strains
DEFINITION: When most people hear “back injury” they immediately think of vertebrae. But the back, like the rest of your body, is made up not only of bones but also nerves, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and other tissues. A strain is a stretched or torn muscle or tendon, while a sprain is a stretched or torn ligament. Symptoms include pain, swelling, difficulty moving, and muscle spasms.
CAUSE: Sprains and strains are often caused by excessive curving of the back, being overweight, or simply having weakened back or abdominal muscles.
TREATMENT: Sprains and strains are relatively minor and easily treated injuries, often healing on their own over time. Immediate treatment includes rest, ice, the wearing of a compression device, and pain medicine.
DEFINITION: A herniated or “slipped” disc refers to when excessive spinal compression causes one of the jelly-like discs that act as cushioning between vertebrae to bulge to the point of rupture. Most often occurring in the lower lumbar region, herniated discs themselves are not sources of pain. However, as the interior of the disc pushes outward during rupture, this material can aggravate nearby nerve roots.
CAUSE: Herniated discs are a natural result of aging. As we get older, the discs in our back degenerate and become less flexible. Unsafe lifting techniques (lifting with the back instead of the knees) and being overweight can exacerbate the issue by causing vertebrae to grind against these discs.
TREATMENT: Lumbar disc bulge exercises, as instructed by a physical therapist, tend to be effective, with pain medicine helping to ease the healing process. In more extreme cases of herniation, epidural injections or even disc replacement surgery may be necessary.
DEFINITION: There are many types of spinal fractures, ranging in severity. Compression fractures occur when the bone partially collapses in on itself. More dangerous are burst fractures, wherein the bone explodes outwards, sending shards into surrounding tissue and nerves. Worst of all are fracture dislocations, where both bone and ligament break, causing the bones to slide away from one another, making healing difficult.
CAUSE: Fracturing vertebrae requires either extreme pressure, weak bones, or a combination of both. Thus, such injuries are generally caused by traumatic incidents, such as falling or other forms of heavy impact (such as car accidents). Osteoporosis and advanced forms of cancer can make vertebrae more susceptible to fracture.
TREATMENT: Depending on the extent and type of the fracture, treatments can range from extended bed rest and ice to steroid injections and surgery. Once healed, patients are recommended to maintain good posture and a healthy weight to prevent further spinal stress.