Neck and back pain are woefully common across the globe. In fact, these aches and pains are often treated as a rite of passage: a sign that someone is finally reaching middle age. However, neck and back pain is hardly something to be cavalier about.
According to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), back and neck pain are conditions that affect millions of Americans each year. It’s estimated that up to 80% of people will experience back pain at some point in their lives – and worse yet, back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide.
Back and neck injuries can keep you from your work, cost you thousands in medical bills, and generally lower your quality of life. But what causes these conditions, and how can you treat them? Here’s what you need to know about neck and back injuries.
Common Causes of Neck and Back Injuries
Neck and back injuries vary from the minor (which lead to a dull ache that lasts a day or so) to the extreme (which can lead to hospitalization or long-term disability). As a result, there are a wide range of activities that can contribute to an injury. However, most neck and back injuries occur due to the following:
- Overuse or improper use during a strenuous activity (e.g., heavy lifting)
- Trauma from an injury (such as a car accident)
- Abnormal growth (i.e., a tumor or bone spur)
- Obesity (excess weight puts increased stress on your spine)
- Joint or bone problems (such as arthritis or osteoporosis)
- Muscle tension
- Herniated disks
- Pinched nerves
Of course, there are other miscellaneous factors that can lead to back pain. For example, a congenital spinal condition like scoliosis can cause back pain later in life, and habits like smoking can damage the disks in your spine, leading to pain over time.
Symptoms of Neck and Back Injuries
The symptoms a person experiences in their neck or back depend entirely on the severity of the injury. Someone who strains a muscle lifting furniture will have far less pain that someone who slips a disk. However, there are some common symptoms that indicate injury in your neck and back. These include:
- Localized pain and stiffness
- Numbness or tingling at the site of the injury (or in the arm following a neck injury)
- Muscle spasms
- Headaches (specific to neck injuries)
While these symptoms do point to a neck or back injury, they don’t necessarily point to an immediate need for medical care. You will want to see a doctor immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms after a neck or back injury:
- Weakness in legs
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Difficulty maintaining balance
- Pain that lingers for three months or longer
- Paralysis of an arm or leg
- Any penetrating injury
Diagnosis of Neck and Back Injuries
Diagnosing a neck or back injury starts with the injured person assessing his or her condition. If the pain is minor, he or she may simply treat the injury at home and then continue life as usual. However, if the injury seems severe, a doctor’s visit may be necessary.
Doctors will diagnose neck and back injuries with a physical exam. Your doctor will ask about your health history, ask how the injury occurred, and look at the affected areas for signs of greater damage. If needed, the doctor may also take an x-ray or MRI of your neck and back to get a better picture of the injury. With this information, your healthcare provider will be able to diagnose your condition and suggest proper treatment.
Treating Neck and Back Injuries
If you are suffering from a neck or back pain, the first thing to do is try home remedies to relieve the pain. These can include hot or cold packs and over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). You can also try to stretch out the muscles in your neck and back or simply get some rest and allow the injury to heal with time.
However, if the pain persists for several days – or if you start noticing the severe symptoms listed above – you will need to treatment from a medical professional as soon as possible. Your doctor may offer you anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants, as well as other treatments like pain relief injections or chiropractic manipulation.
Getting Hospitalized for Neck and Back Injuries
There are some situations in which a neck or back injury may require immediate hospitalization. This depends both on the severity of the injury and your current health condition. For example, back pain can point to a greater issue for individuals with the following conditions:
- Cancer or a history of cancer
- Prolonged steroid use
- A recent injury (particularly for elderly individuals)
- Intravenous drug use
- Cigarette use
- Any immunosuppression (either from chronic illness, surgery, or medication)
Additionally, individuals who experience any of the severe symptoms of neck and back pain may require hospitalization for their injuries.
Another reason to visit the hospital for a neck or back injury is if the pain occurs from a severe accident. Victims of car accidents, athletic injuries, or a significant fall should go to the hospital right away so they can be properly examined and treated for their injuries. Finally, any penetrative injury should be treated by a medical professional; do not remove the object from the neck or back, just go to the hospital quickly.
The long-term effects of a neck or back injury can be devastating for your overall quality of life. People who suffer from chronic neck or back pain experience mobility issues, stiffness, vertigo, and other discomfort for much of their lives, which can interfere with your daily activities.
Additionally, a neck or back injury can have a lasting impact on your ability to work. The ACA claims that back pain accounts for over 264 million lost work days each year. The pain resulting from your injury can limit your productivity or even preclude you from doing your job as normal, thereby impacting your finances in a colossal way.
Luckily, many neck and back injuries are acute and will heal in a matter of days with proper treatment.