Diagnosing and Treating Back & Neck Injuries

Spinal cord injuries, even seemingly minor, can be very painful. The scope of back and neck injuries ranges from painful but minor conditions like muscle strains to sprains to nerve damage, herniated discs, and demobilizing fractures. Since the spinal cord is so fragile, it is prone to injury. The bones, muscles, tendons, and tissues that extend from the neck to the pelvis can be easily injured even from minor blows. While some illnesses and pre-existing physical conditions can cause back injuries, trauma from sports, car accidents, and bike accidents are all common and frustrating sources of back pain.

Since back and neck injuries can be complex, and sometimes stem from several factors, it is sometimes difficult for medical experts to get an accurate diagnosis. Some diagnoses, like tumors, fractures, and infections, are more straightforward than soft tissue damage and nerve damage. However, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis for your back or neck injury, as the type of injury determines the best course of treatment. The sooner treatment begins, the sooner you can return to work, school, sports, and other daily activities.

Diagnosing Spinal Cord Injuries
Because they are complex, and multiple injuries may exist simultaneously, spinal cord injuries are diagnosed using several types of diagnostic equipment. In addition to technical diagnostic equipment, physicians may inquire about your medical history and ask questions to determine the source and location of your pain.

X-rays, a type of radiation called electromagnetic waves, show details of bone structures in the spine. They present pictures of the spine differing shades of black and white, and can pick up abnormalities like fissures in the bone and misplaced structures. X-rays have been used for decades, and they’re considered a relatively reliable and accurate diagnostic tool. Therefore, they are commonly used to detect tumors, spondylolisthesis, and fractures.

CT scans
CT scans, also called computerized axial tomography, are specialized X-ray machines that have the same capacity as X-rays to show bones and structural problems. By using computer imaging in addition to X-rays, they also show cross section images of the body. Unlike X-rays, CT scans can pick up soft tissue damage, like a herniated, spinal stenosis, or slipped disc. Doctors commonly use them to look for surrounding damage to the abdomen and other organs too.

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, scans are particularly effective for identifying certain conditions. They provide detail of spinal cord discs and are useful for ruling out tumors and infections in the spinal cord. Medical practitioners typically use MRI machines to check for degenerative disc disease, isthmic spondylolisthesis and damage to the nerve roots from a herniated disc or spinal stenosis. Physicians also use MRI scans to prepare for further treatments, such as microdiscectomy, spinal fusion, and other types of back surgery.

An electromyogram (EMG) is used to find nerve and muscle damage. It measures the electrical activity of muscles in use and at rest. EMGs detect any impairment in how quickly and effectively nerves send electrical signals throughout the body using electrical signals called impulses.

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment
For minor conditions like muscle strains and sprains, medical experts recommend icing the affected area on and off for 15-20 minutes after symptoms of an injury appear. This will significantly help reduce swelling and calm the affected muscles and connective tissues. You will probably be instructed to lay low for some time to give the affected structure time to heal. You can also apply a heating pad to your back, but you should begin doing so after 2-3 days of using ice first, which will calm swelling. Using gentle rehabilitative techniques like gently massaging the area can help too. However, you should not massage the area if it causes pain. Avoid sitting up in bed, sitting on soft couches, and making any sudden twisting movements. Patients can take prescription or over-the-counter pain medication like Tylenol and Aspirin, or get cortisone injections to alleviate pain. Surgery is sometimes recommended for long-term and complex conditions. Recovery time varies by injury, but non-permanent spinal cord damage can take weeks, months, and even years to heal.

Regardless of injury, recovery can be long and frustrating. You may need to take time from work, sports, and other activities to give yourself time to heal.