Watch Your Back: Spine Injury Symptoms

A spine injury can cause serious problems throughout your body

An injury to your spine can cause much more than just a pain in the back. If one of the discs or ligaments in your back is hurt, you might have muscle spasms or other symptoms in your legs, hands and arms. You might even lose bladder and bowel control.

Here’s what orthopedic doctors want you to know about spine-related pain. “Whenever you hurt something in your spine, your body reacts to the spinal injury to protect itself,” says Dr. Mark Kerner of The Spine Center of Hampton Roads, with offices in Portsmouth and Suffolk. “People get these muscle spasms. It’s the body’s natural reaction telling you there’s some injury going on, telling you to stop what you’re doing.”

If you can still function, that’s a good sign. A weekend warrior who gets hurt diving for a Frisbee should first try ibuprofen and Tylenol, says Dr. Jeffrey Carlson of the Orthopaedic and Spine Center in Newport News. If anti inflammatory drugs and heat make the injury feel better within two weeks and you can still perform your daily activities, you’re probably OK recovering on your own, Carlson says. If you’re not better in two weeks, see a doctor, he says.

But if the pain is sudden, acute and/or you can’t perform your normal daily activities, see a doctor immediately. Don’t assume you’ll get better. Other symptoms you might notice include numbness, tingling, loss of feeling, as well as weakness in a hand, arm, leg or foot. Or perhaps your coffee cup feels heavy. These symptoms should send you to a doctor, Carlson says.

And although you may not connect this issue to back trouble—if you can’t control your bowel or bladder, you need to see a doctor right away—not the Depends section of the drug store, Carlson says. In fact, you should go to the emergency room instead of waiting for an appointment time, he says. The nerve that controls bowels and bladder is at the tip of the spinal cord, he says. Yes, it’s embarrassing, but better to get medical attention. “If you’re not functioning normally, you need to be seen,” Carlson says.

But, “Denial is a powerful force,” Kerner says. “That’s where people get in trouble—in denial.” Here’s denial. Carlson treated a woman earlier this summer who hadn’t been able to get out of bed for three weeks. She wasn’t in much pain, but her legs were paralyzed. Carlson recently treated a patient from Richmond whose doctor hadn’t taken seriously the fact that the man couldn’t raise his left arm. Yes, the man was right handed, but not being able to lift his left arm was a sign of trouble.

Just because you see a doctor doesn’t mean your next stop is the operating room. “It’s the rare patient, 10 percent, that actually needs me to consider fixing something,” Kerner says. “We try everything we can to make it as high a percentage as possible of people who don’t need an operation.”

Kerner first works to get the patient’s symptoms calmed down so the body can heal itself. Treatment might include heat, massage, stretches, exercises, muscle relaxants and pain medication, he says. You want to avoid surgery if you can, he says. “Even with a disc herniation, 80 to 90 percent get better in six to 12 weeks.” But if the pain and other symptoms persist, surgery may be called for, Kerner says.

Some issues, if left untreated, run the risk of permanent nerve damage, Carlson and Kerner say. “Nerves don’t take injury lightly, and they don’t heal themselves well,” Carlson says. Or, if the persistent issue prevents you from doing your job or your favorite hobby, you’ll probably want to discuss surgery.

“The vast majority of people who have surgery have it for quality of life issues,” Kerner says.

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