It can happen suddenly or slowly over time: You make an awkward movement, overdo it while exercising or you overuse your back at work or at home. Either way, a back injury can make it difficult to move freely throughout your day.
While there are many causes of back pain, and several injuries that can occur to your back, the most common types of back injuries include:
- Sprains and strains
- Herniated or bulging disc
- Fractured vertebra
Sprains and strains in the back
Spraining or straining your back is the most common type of back injury. These injuries can happen acutely (suddenly) or slowly over time. Strains often occur from twisting or pulling a muscle or tendon in your back. A sprain usually happens as a result from a fall or sudden twist, or a trauma that forces a joint out of its normal position.
Symptoms of sprains or strains are generally similar and include:
- A pop at the time of the injury
- Muscle spasms or cramps
- Difficulty bending, walking or standing up straight
- Pain that increases with certain movements
Back sprains and strains are often easily treated, especially if you treat the injury soon after it occurs. A “wait and see” approach can lead to additional injury that takes longer heal. Most of the time, you can treat a sprain or strain at home. Rest, ice and pressure during the first 24-48 hours can help alleviate pain and reduce swelling. You may also want to use an over-the-counter, non-steroid anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen.
Generally, you can return to normal activities within 1-2 days after the injury. Be sure not to over-do it, but also keep in mind that too much rest can prolong your symptoms. If your symptoms persist after about two weeks, or interfere with your daily activities, you should schedule an appointment with your primary care provider.
Herniated or bulging discs
Another common back injury involves a herniated or bulging disc. This occurs when there is a problem with the rubbery cushions (discs) between your vertebrae. A disc is often described as a jelly donut, with a softer center inside a tougher exterior. A herniated disc occurs when the softer “jelly” pushes through a tear in the exterior of the disc. This can cause nearby nerves to become irritated and create painful symptoms, such as:
- Arm or leg pain
- Numbness or tingling
- Muscle weakness
Sometimes, however, people with a herniated disc don’t experience any symptoms. Surgery is usually not needed to treat a herniated disc. Your doctor will discuss your treatment options, which may include rest, epidural injections, medication or physical therapy.
A fractured vertebra, also called a compression fracture, refers to a crack or gap in the vertebra. It is often a result of the spine aging and weakening, but can also be caused by trauma to the spine or from a fall. Symptoms of a fractured vertebra include:
- Acute or chronic back pain
- Lost height
- Hunched posture
Treatment may include rest, a brace, medication, physical therapy or minimally-invasive surgical procedures such as vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty. Your doctor will discuss each of these options and create a plan that is right for you.