There’s a big difference between tweaking your back and suffering a serious injury—like a herniated disk. Here’s how to tell the difference between minor back pain and a big problem, plus how to make a game plan to save your spine.
If your back injury is muscular, ice immediately to reduce the swelling, says Rami Said D.P.T. of the Columbia University Department of Neurological Surgery. Apply the cold a few times a day for 10 to 15 minutes at a time—any longer isn’t helpful, research finds. Don’t sit on the couch all day either.
Inactivity will only make the problem worse, so over-the-counter anti-inflammatories can help get you moving again. After a couple of days, try using a heating pad in the morning, when your joints and muscles are stiffest. The warmth draws more blood to the area, lubricating joints and helping to heal muscles.
For spinal injuries like slipped or herniated disks, surgery isn’t inevitable; in fact, even surgeons consider it a last resort, Said says.
If you herniate a disc in the lumbar spine (low back), you’ll likely experience chronic pain, and can experience symptoms like pins and needles and numbness through your hips, feet, and legs.
Visit a spine specialist, who will evaluate your symptoms, order an MRI, and make a plan. You’ll likely start with physical therapy and possibly medication. If things don’t get better after a few months, or the problem affects your day-to-day movements, you may be a candidate for surgery.