Symptoms and Signs of Neck and Back Injuries

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 11/3/2021

Doctor's Notes on Neck and Back Injuries

Injuries (trauma) to the neck and back may cause severe and debilitating pain. The spinal column has many ligaments and muscles that protect the spinal cord and assist in movement. Injury to any part of the spinal column could lead to spinal cord injury and permanent disability. If trauma to the neck or back occurs, the patient should avoid movement and the neck and back should be splinted until medically evaluated.

Symptoms of neck and back injuries include 

  • pain,
  • tenderness, and
  • stiffness at the site of the injury.

There may be muscle spasms on either side of the spinal column immediately following the injury and up to 24 hours later. Other symptoms of neck and back injuries that may indicate a more serious injury include numbness, tingling, or paralysis of an extremity. If a penetrating injury to the neck occurs, immediate treatment is needed. The penetrating object should be left in place and only medical personnel should remove it to avoid possible damage to the spinal cord.

What Is the Treatment for Neck and Back Injuries?

In a situation with an acute traumatic neck or back injury do the following:

  • Immobilize the head, neck, and back by placing soft packing, such as towels or small pillows, on either side of the head to prevent side-to-side motion
  • If the victim needs to vomit, roll the head, neck, and body as a unit so the person rests on his or her side 
  • Move the person only when necessary or if they are in further imminent danger
  • Call 911 immediately for any neck or back injury associated with loss of consciousness, weakness or numbness in arms or legs, the person is not acting right, or if the patient is intoxicated

In many cases, minor or moderate acute back or neck injuries may simply improve with some rest. Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) may help with discomfort. Continue to move gently during this period, to decrease the chance that you will become stiff and lose mobility. 

If you have pain from a neck or back injury, treatments may include: 

  • Hot or cold packs 
  • Certain exercises to strengthen back and belly muscles and ease pain, such as stretching and flexing
    • Moderate intensity exercise may help with your overall fitness and strength 
    • Consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program 
  • Use a back brace or corset for extra support when lifting or working 
  • Acupuncture
  • Osteopathic or chiropractic manipulation

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.