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The spine runs between the skull and the pelvis. It forms the central axis of the body and is made up of 24 separate bones called vertebrae. At the top of the spine there are 7 vertebrae which make up the neck region and allow you to move your head. There are 12 vertebrae which support the rib cage and a further five in the lower back which form the lumbar region which are the focus of back injuries. The lumbar region suffers the most stress due to its flexibility and the increased body weight it supports. Many people who complain of back pain and back injuries suffer with damage to their lumbar region.
Beginning at the base of the skill and enclosed in the vertebrae is the spinal cord. The function of the spinal cord is to transmit information between the brain and the rest of the body through the central nervous system. This includes instructions for movement from the brain to body parts, and sensory information, such as pain, back to the brain. The sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in the body and runs from the lower back down through the buttocks and the back of the legs. Back injuries themselves can refer to anything from a sprain or strain to a trapped nerve to something even more serious in that of a slipped disc. The pain felt from each of these back injuries varies depending on the individual, though rehabilitation can be anything from rest to surgery depending on their severity.
Almost all people will suffer with some form of back pain or one of the below back injuries throughout their life; usually it is not caused by a serious condition. Back pain may arise from poor posture, lifting a heavy item or twisting the back. If the pain persists or is severe you should visit your doctor.
Some back injuries are more common than others and include:
Slipped (Herniated) Disc – Between each of the bones in the back there are protective pads of tissue. These pads have a casing which can split causing the internal tissue to bulge out of the disc and press on to the spinal cord. Slipped discs occur more often in men and are usually within older patients. A slipped disc can cause aching pain, numbness, muscle spasms and loss of bladder control. The symptoms vary depending on the location of slipped disc and which nerve it affects. The usual time to recover from a slipped disc is four to six weeks and you are encouraged to remain as active as possible during this time. Gentle and non-weight bearing exercise such as swimming would be suggested as a method of light rehabilitation. You may also be referred to a physiotherapist who can provide patient specific exercise plans.
Sciatica – When the sciatic nerve is irritated or compressed this can cause pain in the lower back and legs. Although the cause of the pain is usually in the lower back the pain mainly affects the buttocks and leg (often on just one side). A slipped disc is the most common cause of sciatica. The pain can be made worse with sudden actions such as coughing and sneezing, with sitting or standing for extended periods of time or by bending backwards. Numbness, tingling and muscle weakness are other symptoms associated with sciatica.
Lower back pain – a common back injury which can be caused by a muscle strain where the muscle is stretched or torn, or by a ligament sprain, where the tissues that connect muscle to bone are damaged. Both of these result in pain in the lower back and can limit movement. Lower back injuries can be brought on by actions such as heavy lifting, but the risk of injury may be heightened due to lack of physical conditioning and obesity.