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The seriousness of a back injury depends on the cause of the injury and what damage is done.

The seriousness of a back injury depends on the cause of the injury and what damage is done.
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Back injuries

5-minute read

Back injuries, especially to the lower back, are very common. Any injury to the back’s bones, joints, connective tissue, muscles or nerves can cause pain and discomfort.

Injuries can affect any part of the back, but most injuries happen in the lower back. Common injuries include sprains and strains, herniated disks or fractured vertebrae. The injuries vary in seriousness depending on the cause of the injury and what damage is done

What are the symptoms of serious back injury?

Severe back injuries include fractures (a break in a bone), wounds, extensive bruising and damage to your spinal cord and internal organs.

Any of the following symptoms could indicate a severe back injury. You should see a doctor right away if you have:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • problems with urinating or passing stool (poo)
  • numbness or pins and needles to the arms, legs, hands or feet
  • fever
  • paralysis
  • blood in the urine

Seek medical assistance immediately by calling an ambulance on triple zero (000). Do not move the person unless they are in danger and advise the person to not move their back. Support their head, neck and spine and prevent twisting or bending movements.

What are the signs of a back injury?

Signs you may have injured your back include:

  • pain or tenderness (sore to touch)
  • pain that worsens with movement, coughing, sneezing or laughing
  • stiffness or difficulty moving
  • difficulty standing up straight
  • muscles in spasm on either side of the spine
  • bruising
  • swelling
  • pain that radiates down one or both legs

However, back pain has many causes. It could be caused by a disease such as osteoarthritis or osteoporosis, your age, physical fitness, smoking, being overweight, or the type of work you do.

It is important to find out the cause of your symptoms so they can be treated properly.

What causes back injuries?

You can injure your back doing sport, working around the house or in the garden, from a sudden jolt in a car accident, or from a sudden movement, bump, knock or fall.

The most common cause of lower back injury is muscle strain.

When should I see my doctor?

Apart from the signs of a serious back injury, you should see your doctor if:

  • your problems have not improved at all within a few days
  • your problems have not improved completely within 6 weeks

Your doctor may be able to help you manage any pain and may refer you for physiotherapy or other investigations.

How are back injuries treated?

Your doctor will examine you to check whether the nerves from your spinal cord are working properly. Make sure you tell them if you have any problems with going to the toilet.

Most minor back injuries get better by themselves within 6 weeks. Usually you will not need any other tests or treatment. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists recommends that an x-ray for low back pain is only needed if you have other significant symptoms such as problems with bladder and bowel control, severe pain or weakness or numbness in one or both legs. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

The most important thing you can do is to continue to stay active. A common myth is that bed rest will cure back pain. In fact, bed rest slows down the recovery period and can add to your pain.

Simple pain relief, such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatories, may help. You can talk to your doctor or pharmacist, or call healthdirect for advice on 1800 022 222.

You can help ease injuries to your back by:

  • using cold compresses (such as covered ice packs) for 20 minutes at a time every 3 to 4 hours for the first day — these will ease pain and swelling
  • using warmth after the first day — showers, baths or hot moist towels can help ease pain and help recovery
  • avoiding activities involving bending, lifting and twisting until you feel better

Depending on your job, you may need time off work to allow your back to heal.

Can back injuries be prevented?

A key way to prevent back injuries is to lift and carry safely. If you are picking up a heavy load, lift with your legs, not your back.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your back injury, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Resources and support

Mybackpain.org.au has a range of information about managing low back pain.

The NSW Agency for Clinical Information has a consumer factsheet about managing low back pain.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2021


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