Battle of the Back Injuries
Learn about common back injuries and how to treat them.
- Ignorance is not bliss. Knowing your body and what can happen to it is the first step to maintaining an active lifestyle.
- Your back is responsible for so much that it can suffer a wide array of injuries – a small injury, if left untreated, can hinder your lifestyle for months or years and eventually become a chronic problem
- Your lower back bears most of your weight and moves more than any other area of your back so most injuries will occur in that region.
- Over 80% of all adults will suffer a back injury of some kind in their lifetime
- 90% of back injuries heal within three months, without surgery
- Most injuries occur in the lumbar, or lower, spine
- Nearly 20% of all sports-related injuries occur in the back
We recover from the wear and tear of our daily lives each night by lying on it. Its bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons house some of our most precious anatomy, including our spine. Our head, ribs, pelvis, and limbs all attach to our spine. As part of our torso, it feeds information to our brain and energy and power to our limbs when we move. We draw strength from our back for almost all of the movement that we make, so it’s important to protect it and keep it healthy. When one part falters it affects the whole.
We can’t all be doctors or physical therapists, but there is some basic information about the composition of our backs that we need to know so we can try to prevent injury and fix it if there is a problem. Check out Moji’s Basic Back Anatomy article here for a quick and, we hope, relatively painless, anatomy lesson.
SHOULD I SEE A DOCTOR?
The answer to this question depends largely on the amount of pain you are feeling. You should always see a doctor if you have become incapacitated or unable to perform your daily activities. There are also some red flags to watch out for that could indicate other serious health problems:
- Loss of motor control
- Pain or numbness accompanied by fever, severe swelling, and/or a rash
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
The more stubborn of us tend to try to stay active through the pain. In some cases, activity, stretching, and movement can help some back injuries heal. But in other cases, rest is required, at least during the initial, acute phase. Ignoring a problem because it complicates your training is a good way to develop a more significant injury. So be honest with yourself, and with your body. If something doesn’t feel right, visit a professional.
BREAKING DOWN BASIC INJURIES
The sheer volume of possible back injuries can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s enough to send even the heartiest of athletes into a hypochondriacally induced panic.
Here’s a list of some basic injuries and a breakdown of what they are:
Sprains and Strains
Back sprains and strains are the most common causes of lower back pain. Sprains are simply stretched or torn ligaments while strains are stretched or torn muscles or tendons. These are both typical overuse injuries that are caused by doing too much too quickly or by sudden twisting, lifting, or bending movements that the tissues cannot withstand. It’s crucial to maintain proper mechanics – with improper technique you will end up sacrificing more than just performance.
Sprains and strains can occur in any back muscle, ligament, or tendon that is overstretched or pulled beyond its capacity. These injuries occur most often in the lower back, and not only because our lumbar region is the most mobile. Unlike the middle of our back which is, in part, protected by our rib cage, our lumbar region has a lot more range of motion, and a higher risk of injury.
Between each vertebrate is a disc. Discs are like watery, gelatinous, fibrous padding that are designed to serve as shock absorbers as your spine expands and compresses as you move. Given how much movement they enable, it’s no surprise that when there is increased shock, you have an increased risk of injury.
Discs are made up of a tougher, outer ring (annulus fibrosis), and a softer inner layer (nucleus pulposus). If the outer layer gets damaged, the inner layer can infringe on the spinal cord’s or spinal nerve’s space and cause pain, numbness and/or weakness. Like sprains and strains, disc injuries typically occur in the lumbar region of the spine; generally only about 10% of disc injuries require surgery.
The severity of a disc injury depends largely on the extent to which the outer or inner ring has been compromised. Disc injuries are caused either by excessive force, trauma to the disc, or degeneration over time as we age. Injuries occur when the soft inner part of the disc protrudes outward against or through the tougher outer ring of the disc, the annulus fibrosis.
- Bulges A disc bulge is a mild form of this injury which occurs when the nucleus pulposis pushes outwards against the annulus fibrosis and causes mild sciatica, or numbness, and little pain. The tough outer ring of the disc does not break, but the nucleus pulposis does extend beyond its normal space.
- Slips, and Herniated Discs A herniated (or slipped) disc occurs when the actual outer ring of the disc is compromised and the nucleus pulposis actually breaks through. In severe cases, the nucleus pulposis can infringe on the spinal column or interfere with the nerves in the spinal chord and cause extreme pain, numbness, and weakness that can radiate out into the limbs.
- Annular Tears Annular tears can sometimes be a precursor to herniated discs. Annular tears are simply small tears or fissures that occur in the outer ring of the disc if it is compromised.
Disc injuries can generally be avoided by keeping the spine flexible and the bones strong. Staying hydrated is also an important part of maintaining disc health because water plays a key role in preventing disc injuries, among other things. As athletes, we use water to maintain energy and to recover it, but the discs, bones and muscles of the back also need water to stay lubricated. As we age, the discs can become dehydrated, making movement within and among the discs and vertebrae more difficult.
Facet is simply another word for joint, and your vertebrae have joints just like your elbow or knee. Each vertebra has two facet discs on either side. The facets are designed to help your spine move and bend just like your elbow and knee help your arm and leg bend.
Facet syndrome occurs when the facet joints in your spine become irritated and swollen due to trauma, whiplash, or degeneration over time. Facet syndrome most often presents itself in the lower back or neck. Your facet joints also need to stay lubricated and supported by strong muscles and tendons, so it’s crucial to make sure that you develop strong muscles to support the joints and protect the vertebrae — the more weight your bones are forced to bear the more quickly they will degenerate and the less flexible they will be.
Your body has an incredible capacity to heal itself and most people can fully recovery from their back injuries. However, we should not take our health and our ability to heal for granted as we push ourselves to excel, improve, and chase those ever evolving dreams of achieving that next PR. Take care of your back and it can be trained to perform tremendous tasks so that you can set tremendous goals.
For more back injury information, Moji recommends the following sites: