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Neck and Back Injuries

You use your spine every day to bend, twist, reach and lift. So, when you get a neck or back injury, it can seriously limit your mobility and function. 

Neck and back injuries are among the most common causes of spine pain. In fact, back pain affects 8 out of 10 people sometime in their lives and is among the most common reasons for doctor visits. 

Neck and back injuries can range from mild to severe. Most common injuries, such as sprains and strains, go away on their own or with non-surgical treatments. Serious spine injuries may require surgery.

Back and neck injury care in the Puget Sound: Why choose us?

People turn to our multidisciplinary Spine Program because we have the expertise to treat any condition, routine or complex. Our team of spine experts includes physiatrists (doctors with specialized training in physical medicine and rehabilitation) and spine surgeons. They work with physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, neurosurgeons, pain management specialists and other experts to provide the care you need. Whether you have a common injury or serious spinal trauma, you’re in the right place at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health.

Types of neck and back injuries

We treat the full range of neck and back injuries, including: 

  • Cervical radiculopathy: Cervical radiculopathy is a “pinched nerve” in your neck. It usually happens when vertebrae (spine bones) or intervertebral discs (spongy pads of cartilage between vertebrae) put pressure on neck nerves. It’s often the result of spinal degeneration, or spondylosis

  • Herniated disc: A herniated disc is a tear in the cushion between vertebrae. Herniations are most common in your low back. They can happen suddenly due to an injury or develop over time due to degeneration.

  • Spine fractures: Your vertebrae can break or develop hairline cracks (compression fractures). Most fractures are the result of sudden injuries like falls or car accidents. Sometimes, osteoporosis (brittle bones) leads to fractures. 

  • Spine sprains: A sprain is an overstretched ligament. You may get a sprain in your neck or back due to poor posture, heavy lifting or sudden movements. 

  • Spine strains: Strains – or pulled muscles – often result from repetitive movements that place excess stress on the soft tissues of your spine. 

  • Spondylolisthesis: Spondylolisthesis occurs when a vertebra shifts out of place. It usually happens if a stress fracture weakens the bone. The condition is common in athletes such as gymnasts, weightlifters and football players. 
  • Whiplash injury: Whiplash is a traumatic neck injury caused by a forceful back-and-forth head movement. Rear-end car accidents or contact sports are the most common causes of whiplash injuries.

Spine injuries vs. spinal cord injuries

Most spine injuries aren’t cause for alarm. But spinal cord injuries, which affect the column of nerve tissue inside the protective vertebrae, require urgent medical attention. They can result in paralysis (loss of feeling or movement in your limbs) or even death. 

If you suspect that you or someone near you has a spinal cord injury, call 911 immediately.

Signs of a spinal cord injury can include: 

  • Difficulty walking or standing
  • Inability to control your bladder or bowels
  • Intense pain in your head or spine
  • Loss of movement in your arms or legs
  • Neurogenic shock (cold skin, slow heart rhythm, low blood pressure, blue lips)
  • Numbness or tingling in your back, neck or limbs
  • Unconsciousness
  • Unnatural position of the head or spine

Neck and back injury diagnosis

Your doctor reviews your medical history and symptoms. Be sure to explain when and how your injury occurred and where you feel pain. Describe the pain in as much detail as possible. Note its severity and whether it feels sharp, dull or burning. 

A physical exam also can be part of the diagnostic process. Your doctor checks your back and neck, looking for spinal irregularities or swelling. They may ask you to do certain movements to evaluate your strength, reflexes, sensation and range of motion. 

If your doctor suspects a serious injury, they may order the following imaging exams: 

  • X-ray, showing bone injuries, such as vertebral fractures or dislocations.
  • MRI, showing soft tissue injuries and intervertebral disc conditions.
  • CT scan, showing damage to nerves, blood vessels and soft tissues

Neck and back injury treatments

Most neck and back injuries heal on their own with a combination of non-surgical treatments. Your doctor may recommend conservative home remedies or prescribe more targeted therapies. We only recommend surgery for severe injuries or if symptoms last longer than three months.

  • Conservative therapies for spine injuries include: 

    • Applying ice to the injured area for the first few days, then alternating heat and cold.
    • Avoiding heavy lifting, contact sports or any activities that strain your spine.
    • Relieving pain and inflammation with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
    • Resting your back for a day or two after the injury, then starting mild physical activity.
    • Starting physical therapy when your doctor says it is safe to do so.
    • Trying pain relief injections if other treatments haven’t improved your symptom
  • Only a small number of people with neck or back injuries require spine surgery. And thanks to advances in surgical technology, we can now perform many spine procedures using minimally invasive techniques. 

    Minimally invasive spine surgery uses very small incisions, so we can operate with less trauma to soft tissues. This approach allows a faster recovery, less pain and minimal downtime. The spine surgeons at our Spine Program routinely perform minimally invasive spine procedures with excellent outcomes.

Tips for preventing spine injuries

Sometimes, it's impossible to prevent a back or neck injury. But taking good care of your spine can reduce your future injury risk. Tips for a healthy spine include: 

  • Avoid putting excess strain on your spine.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Practice good posture.
  • Use proper body mechanics when lifting heavy loads or playing sports.
  • Wear supportive shoes (not heels).

Contact us

Contact us to learn more about the Spine Program or to schedule an appointment with a specialist.