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Common Spinal Injuries, Symptoms and Treatment

Cervical Herniated Nucleus Pulposus | Cervical Stenosis | Cervical Strain
Thoracic Strain | Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)
Fracture of the Thoracic (mid-back) and Lumbar (lower back) Spine | Herniated Disc
Kids & Backpacks | Sciatica | Spinal Fractures | Spinal Stenosis
Spondylolisthesis | Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS)

Cervical Herniated Nucleus Pulposus

A herniated nucleus pulposus, a slipped disk, occurs when all or part of the disk is forced through a weakened part of the disk. When a cervical disk becomes herniated, you may have pain while moving your neck, deep pain near or over the shoulder blade, or pain that radiates to the upper arm, forearm, or fingers. Generally, conservative treatment will properly treat the injury. Treatment options include medication, lifestyle changes, injections, or surgery for a severe injury.

Cervical Stenosis

Cervical stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck area or upper part of the spine. This narrowing places pressure on the spinal cord. Symptoms of cervical stenosis may include neck pain, numbness in the shoulders, arms, and legs, hand clumsiness, balance disturbances, burning sensations in the arm or leg, or bladder/bowel problems. Treatment options include anti-inflammatory medication, neck-brace, or physical therapy. Surgical options may include a decompressive laminectomy, posterior laminoplasty, discectomy, or spinal fusion surgery.

Cervical Strain

Cervical strain, also known as neck strain, is an irritation and spasm of the upper back muscles and neck. These muscles support the head and allow the neck to move. When ligaments within the neck become torn or damaged, a strain becomes the result. Symptoms may include severe pain, tenderness, bruising, a feeling of tearing or popping, swelling, or a muscle spasm with stiffness and soreness in the neck. Generally, self-care alone may treat the injury. Treatment options include ice, massage, heat-pack, or physical therapy.

Thoracic Strain

Thoracic strain may occur when ligaments become torn or damaged within the cervical spine (the upper back). When excessive force is applied to a joint, the ligaments that hold the bones together may become torn or damaged. The seriousness of the sprain depends on how badly the ligaments are torn. Symptoms of thoracic sprain may include muscle spasms, pain that radiates to different zones of the body, stiffness, headaches, digestive issues, rib pain, and limited range of motion. Typically, conservative treatment of thoracic strain is effective. Treatment may include massage treatment, physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, or medication.

Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)

As we grow older our spine loses the flexibility and cushioning it once had which may lead to degenerative disc disease (DDD). This condition is a natural part of aging and the most common cause of lower back pain. Each nerve in the spine has a space for the nerve’s root. DDD forces that space to get smaller, resulting in painfully squished nerves. Depending on the location of the squished nerve in the spine, symptoms could include back pain, radiating leg pain, neck pain and radiating arm pain. For those without a severe condition, non-surgical therapies such as medication, rest, exercise and physical therapy are recommended. If this treatment does not stop the pain, surgery may be required.

Fracture of the Thoracic (mid-back) and Lumbar (lower back) Spine

Fractures of the spine most commonly occur in your mid-back (thoracic spine), lower back (lumbar spine) or at the connection of the two. Although those with fragile bones or a spine tumor may experience these types of fractures during daily activities; this type of fracture is normally caused by a high-impact accident. Men experience this type of fracture four times as often as women. The most common symptom is mild to severe back pain that gets worse with movement. Numbness, tingling, weakness or bowl/bladder issues may occur if the spinal cord has been fractured.

There are different types of spine fractures. Spine fractures are classified by the fracture pattern and whether or not the spinal cord is involved. Three major classifications of mid-back and lower back fractures include:

Physical therapy will most likely be necessary no matter what type of treatment is received. The goals of physical therapy are to reduce pain, regain mobility, and return patients to as close to pre-injury state as possible. Both inpatient and outpatient physical therapy may be needed.

Herniated Disc

Discs in your spine are rubbery pads that can be found between each spine bone to "cushion" the spinal cord. When the center of the disc punctures through the outer edge of the disc it becomes ruptured, or herniated. This causes pressure on the spinal cord and pain to the patient. The most common symptom of a ruptured disc is sciatica, a sharp pain from the buttocks to the back of one leg. Other symptoms include weakness and tingling in one arm or leg, the loss of bladder/bowel control, or a burning neck pain. Once your doctor uses a simple X-ray, MRI or CT to diagnose the ruptured disc, treatment will begin. Nonsurgical treatment including rest, over-the-counter pain medication, anti-inflammatory medication, and cold compresses usually heals the condition. If a piece of your spinal disc sticks into the spinal canal, surgery may be required.

Kids & Backpacks

Backpacks are a popular and practical way to carry schoolbooks and other objects. Although they distribute weight to some of the body’s strongest muscles, backpacks can cause injury to your muscles and joints if they are too heavy or worn incorrectly. Severe back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and incorrect posture may be a result of carrying a backpack. Although they are linked to posture problems, they do not cause scoliosis.

When choosing a backpack, look for the following features:

To reduce back injury caused by a backpack, do the following:


If a disc in your spinal cord is pressing on a nerve in your spine, a condition known as sciatica will occur. This condition is usually caused by the common wear of bones with age or an unexpected amount of pressure on the spine and is seen in most people 30-50 years old. Sciatica may cause pain or a tingling sensation in the lower back or hip that moves to the back of the thigh and into the leg. Some say it feels like a bad leg cramp that will not go away. Weakness, "pins and needles" numbness or a tingling sensation down your leg are other symptoms. After an X-ray or MRI is used to confirm the condition, treatment begins. Most patients heal using non-surgical treatment such as rest, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and heat/cold on painful muscles. Physical therapy is necessary to begin as soon as possible. If non-surgical treatment does not begin working within three months, spine surgery may be needed to stop pressure.

Spinal Fractures

Spine fractures occur when your spine becomes "squished". The spine collapses when a load becomes too heavy, causing pain, limited mobility or spinal deformity. Fractures of your spine may be caused by numerous reasons, including trauma from a fall, thinning of the bone from age, or a tumor that has spread to the spine. Symptoms of a spine fracture may include sudden back pain that gets worse when standing or walking, limited spine mobility, weakness or numbness in the spine, height loss, or shortness of breath. Treatment may be surgical or non-surgical depending on the severity of the condition. Non-surgical treatment may include medication, bed rest, spine brace, physical therapy or spine injections. Surgery may be necessary if these methods fail. Surgical procedures for spine fractures are usually minimally invasive. The best way to prevent spine fractures is to exercise, eat healthy, drink lots of water and practice good posture.

Spinal Stenosis

When joints and discs in the spine deteriorate so much that the spinal canal becomes too narrow, a condition called spinal stenosis occurs. As a result of the deterioration, bone spurs (bony outgrowths that develop on the edge of a bone) form on the spinal canal and the joints in the spine grow larger. This creates pressure on the roots of the nerves in your spine and results in pain. Some patients with spinal stenosis may not show symptoms, but others may experience severe pain. In some cases, pain is experienced in the buttocks, thighs or legs. A physical examination is important to determine how severe the condition is and whether it is causing weakness/numbness in certain parts of the body. The first method of treatment for those with no evidence of "squished" nerves in the spine is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medical and physical therapy. If this fails, spine surgery may become an option.


Spondylolisthesis is a spine condition which occurs when one of the bones in your spine (vertebra) slips onto another bone in your spine below it. This condition could be genetic or caused by physical stress on the spine. Although many patients report little symptoms, the most common is lower back and leg pain. There is a space intended for nerves in your spine to exit the spinal cord. If leg pain persists, this usually is a sign that the space has grown too small. Once diagnosed by your doctor, spondylolisthesis is graded by severity. For most, treatment consists of non-surgical therapies such as medication, rest and physical therapy. Bracing and spinal injections may also be needed. If this fails, spine surgery may be considered.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS)

The thoracic outlet refers to the narrow space between the collarbone and first rib. If the shoulder muscles are not strong enough to hold the collarbone in place, it can slip down and forward, putting pressure on the nerves and blood vessels that lie beneath it. This syndrome usually results from injury, disease, or a congenital abnormality. Symptoms can include a cooled feeling in the arms and hands, aching pain in the neck, shoulder, arm or hand, or difficulty during overhead activity. Treatment is conservative and usually nonsurgical, including physical therapy, postural exercises, anti-inflammatory drugs, or joining a weight loss program.

  • Flexion Fracture: Most flexion injuries can be treated by brace for 6-12 weeks. Surgery may be required for a severe fracture.
    • Compression Fracture: Only the front of the spine breaks and loses height, the back of the spine does not. This is usually a stable fracture.
    • Axial Burst Fracture: Spine loses height on the front and back sides. This is often caused by a high fall landing on your feet.
  • Extension Fracture: Treatment depends on where the spine was fractured and whether a brace/cast will fit the bones together. Typically these fractures will heal using a brace or cast for 12 weeks. Surgery may be necessary if there is an injury to the back of the spine.
    • Flexion/distraction Fracture: Spine is actually pulled apart. This happens in instances when the upper body is thrown forward and the pelvis is stabilized.
  • Rotation Fracture:
    • Transverse Process Fracture: Uncommon fracture resulting from intensely rotating or bending the spine. Usually treated with a slow increase in motion; braces may or may not be used.
    • Fracture-dislocation: Unstable injury when a bone in your spine moves on top of another bone in your spine, causing the spinal cord to be "squished". Surgery is usually required.
    • Wide, padded shoulder straps
    • Two shoulder straps
    • Padded back
    • Waist strap
    • Lightweight backpack
    • Rolling backpack
    • Always use both shoulder straps
    • Tighten the straps
    • Pack light
    • Keep it organized
    • Lift properly
    • Build muscle strength
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