Designed to bend and twist with every movement, it’s easy to take the spine for granted.

The spine is, literally, the backbone of your body. Besides housing the central nervous system, which controls the function of every cell in your body, the spine also is involved in almost every movement you make. And while most people think of major trauma when they think about injuring the spine, even minor injuries can damage this vital part of the body.

How it works

Made up of 26 interlinking vertebrae, the spine is held together with elastic ligaments that allow you to flex and bend. As the central support structure, the spine connects various parts of the body together and allows you to walk upright. Slight curves are natural in the spine and keep the bone structure stable.

Symptoms and common spine injuries

 Most people think of spinal injuries as serious, like car accidents and falls. But the spine also can sustain minor injuries that plague everyday life. These include:

  • Inadvertently twisting your back or neck and compressing your vertebrae
  • Bruising your bones
  • Fragments of bone from a broken vertebrae in the spinal cord
  • Inflammation and deterioration caused by arthritis or osteoporosis that weakens the spinal cord
  • Fluid buildup and swelling around the spinal cord

The delicate cervical spine, which is in the neck, is the most susceptible to injury. The lumbar, or lower back, is another common area where injury occurs.

If you are experiencing a loss of bowel and bladder control, numbness, pain, weakness or heightened sensitivity in your neck and back, chances are you could have a spine injury.

“Mild injuries to the spine are common and affect people at all stages of their life,” said Christopher Ornelas, MD, assistant professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery at Keck School of Medicine of USC and an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in non-operative spinal disorders at the USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine of USC. “The cause of injury varies but often pain is related to simple strains. Most back pain resolves without any treatment, and simple treatments such as ice or heat may be the best initial options.”

Treating minor spine injuries

Bed rest that keeps you from activities that might put pressure on your spine is one of the best ways to heal. Another is taking medicine to reduce inflammation. In more serious cases, your doctor might prescribe physical therapy or other types of rehabilitation, a CT scan or MRI to pinpoint more complex issues, nerve conduction studies to test the electrical signals in your nerves, or surgery.

“Someone should consider seeing a spine specialist if they sustained trauma with the onset of pain, if the pain does not resolve or appears to be worsening,” Dr. Ornelas said. “Patients should seek immediate attention if there is weakness or loss of bowel or bladder control.”

Avoiding injuries

Prevention can save you a lot of pain and emotional suffering. If possible, avoid lifting and carrying heavy objects, twisting so that the hips are out of line with the shoulders and bending at the lower back. Intentional movement that protects your spine is less likely to lead to injury.

The USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine at USC is a comprehensive, coordinated care center with diagnostic testing, pain management, psychological counseling, physical therapy, occupational therapy and a variety of surgical procedures such as microdiscectomy, cervical and lumbar spine fusion and artificial disc replacement.

If you have questions about spinal cord injury, contact the experts at the USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting https://spine.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.

By Heidi Tyline King