importance of preventing spine injury
You’ve heard the old adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s especially true with back pain.
“Back problems can be painful and debilitating, limiting your ability to do your job and enjoy your life,” said Dr. Mehreen Iqbal, M.D., a pain management physician on the medical staff of Texas Health Center for Diagnostics and Surgery (THCDS) in Plano, Texas. “Even though we’ve seen many advances in treatments for back pain, the path to relief can take time.”
Dr. Iqbal notes pain can arise from a range of different causes, involving many different areas of the body. Because this condition is so complex, it can take time to pinpoint the right diagnosis.
She adds that patients with back pain often put off seeking treatment because they fear they’ll be told they need surgery. However, about 95% of patients find relief without needing surgery.
“Doctors generally don’t recommend surgery until after more conservative treatments have been tried, without success,” she said. “And we have many conservative options, including physical therapy, medication and injections, which can be quite effective.”
Still, the best medicine is prevention.
“Taking preventive measures doesn’t guarantee you’ll never get back pain, but it does improve your odds of avoiding or at least delaying problems,” Dr. Iqbal said.
Tips for Preventing Spine Injuries
Back strain ranks among the nation’s most common workplace safety and health injuries. Approximately 80% of the population will suffer from a back injury during their lifetime.
Back pain can come on suddenly — from an accident, a fall, or lifting something heavy — or it can develop slowly due to age-related degenerative changes in the spine. In some cases, medical disorders such as inflammatory arthritis disorders lead to back pain.
As you age, you are more likely to experience back pain. Other risk factors for back problems include pregnancy, poor posture, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity.
Preventive measures for back health involve three key strategies: exercising, using proper form, to strengthen muscles that support the back; following safety measures to avoid accidents and injury; and maintaining overall health.
Exercises for Spine Health
Being physically fit can help minimize back pain. When the back and stomach muscles are weak, they cannot properly support the spine.
“One of the best ways to prevent back pain is to keep your core strong, with stretching and muscle-strengthening exercises,” said Dr. Iqbal. The core is the central part of your body, including the pelvis, lower back, hips and stomach. A physical therapist can guide you on the best ways to develop core strength to protect your back.
Most low or no-impact physical activity can promote back health. Exercises such as walking, biking or swimming can keep your muscles strong and limber and can help you maintain a healthy weight. Exercises that increase balance — such as yoga or tai chi — can also decrease your risk of falling and injuring your back.
It’s important to protect your back while exercising. Always warm up before exercise or other physical activities. Common back injuries typically occur when people lift, push, or pull something that's too heavy.
“Know your limits before attempting any heavy lifting in the gym,” Dr. Iqbal advised. “Don’t overdo it. Be sure you’re using proper technique and form, and pace yourself.”
Basic safety measures can also reduce your chances of an injury that might lead to a back injury. Slips and falls are another common cause of back injuries. Look for anything that might cause a fall in your home: electrical cords in the walkway, loose rugs, and poor lighting when you’re up at night. Be sure to clean up spills and debris right away. Keeping hallways and aisles clear of anything that might cause you to trip.
If you must lift something heavy, follow the proper lifting technique. Remember to spread your feet apart (about shoulder width), bend your knees and keep your back straight. This helps ensure your leg muscles will do most of the work. Securely grip the load and keep it close to your body. Tighten your stomach muscles. Lift slowly and evenly, avoiding rapid, jerky or twisting motion. When changing directions, turn the entire body in the direction you need to go. Don’t twist at the waist.
Pain in the upper back is typically related to injuries that have damaged or weakened bones and muscles in the back, due to an accident (automobile wreck or sporting accident); bad posture; poor lifting technique; or repetitive injury. Read more about upper back injuries here.
Finally, basic good health habits — maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking, staying active and eating healthy food — can help reduce risks associated with back issues. Being overweight can put unnecessary and injury-causing stress and strain on your back. A well-balanced diet that includes enough calcium and vitamin D can also help keep your spine strong. Dr. Iqbal adds that some patients have had good results by taking ginger tea or turmeric (used as a spice or taken as a supplement.)
Maintaining good posture throughout the day will help reduce back, shoulder and neck strain.
Prolonged sitting can lead to back strain. (Ditto for driving long distances without breaks.) If your job keeps you at a desk all day, try to avoid sitting for long stretches at a time. Change your position often. Set a reminder on your cellphone or smartwatch to get up once every hour or so to walk or move around for a minute or two. Pay attention to the ergonomics of your chair. Your chair should be adjustable and comfortable and should provide lumbar (lower back) support.
Consider meditation or other strategies that help you relax. These can reduce muscular tension and stress that build up in the back during the day.
Top Causes of Spinal Injuries
There are different types of spinal injuries and other causes of back pain. Acute back pain may last just a few days to a few weeks. Typically, this kind of pain is triggered by a fall, an accident, or lifting an object that’s too heavy. In most cases, acute back pain gets better on its own, without treatment. Chronic back pain, which is less common, is considered pain that persists for three months or longer. Back pain can range from localized pain in a specific area to generalized pain involving the entire back. Sometimes the pain radiates from the back to the legs, buttocks or abdomen.
See a doctor if your back pain does not improve after a few weeks, or if the pain is accompanied by one of these symptoms:
• Unexplained weight loss or night sweats
• Weakness, pain, or numbness and tingling in the legs
While it’s rare, in some instances lower back pain can signal a medical emergency.
“If the back pain is accompanied by a ‘red flag’ symptom, you should seek medical attention right away,” said Dr. Iqbal. “These include: sudden loss of bowel or bladder control, falls or weakness while walking, or saddle anesthesia, which is a loss of sensation in the area of the buttocks, perineum and inner surfaces of the thighs.”
For minor back pain, start with basic home care measures. Applying an ice pack or heating pad can provide relief. Try over-the-counter pain medications, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen. Avoid movements or activities that trigger the pain. But don’t rest too much — that can exacerbate the problem. Stay as active as you are able, with low-impact activities like walking or swimming.
If your pain persists, or is severe, see your physician, who may prescribe medications, such as muscle relaxants, or physical therapy. A back pain specialist may recommend injections of anti-inflammatory or numbing medications.
“In some cases, we may also recommend that patients try complementary treatments, such as acupuncture, myofascial release, or chiropractic treatment,” said Dr. Iqbal. “There are a lot of options other than surgery.”
Non-Invasive Spinal Surgery Options
Doctors almost always recommend conservative treatments as the first line of defense. However, if you’ve tried these measures, and still haven’t found relief, know that many advances have been made in recent years in spinal surgery.
Texas Health Center for Diagnostics and Surgery (THCDS) specializes in the most advanced surgical techniques and technology for treating back problems, including artificial disc replacement surgery, endoscopic spine surgery, and spinal fusion surgery.
Can back injuries be easily prevented?
Most back pain is caused by overuse or straining of the muscles and ligaments. Back pain can usually be prevented with safe work practices, stretching, and strengthening activities. However, there are no guarantees. Some back pain is due to degenerative disease — arthritis or other conditions caused by normal wear and tear. A congenital abnormality, tumor or kidney stone may also contribute to back pain. Preventive measures can help avoid or delay back pain, but not always.
How do I prevent spine injuries at the gym?
• Properly warming up your muscles before doing any workout.
• Gently stretching before and after a workout.
• Keeping the abdominal muscles engaged and your core tight to support your spine.
• Holding your form and posture while avoiding sudden, jerky movements.
• Knowing your limits. Don’t attempt to deadlift a heavy weight on your first day at the gym. Take it slowly and gradually work up to heavier weights.
• Following good form. Consult a physical therapist or personal trainer for advice on how to protect your back while lifting weights.
Prevention is typically the best medicine. But staying healthy and active isn't always a guarantee. Some people will experience back problems despite their best efforts.
If you’re suffering from back pain, and having trouble finding relief, the physicians on the medical staff at THCDS will be happy to discuss your options and perform an evaluation. Physicians on the medical staff offer a wide range of surgical and non-surgical options for pain relief, including pain management injections. Call 972-543-1250 to schedule an appointment today.