We’ve all experienced a fall that made us stop and wonder, Am I okay? There’s no way I’m okay, right? before getting up, brushing the dirt off your hands, and carrying on with your day. But what happens when you fall and can’t shake the pain off right away? Moderate to severe pain following an injury can be a sign that something is seriously wrong. Keep reading to find out when you should go to the doctor for back pain after a fall.
How Do You Know if Your Injury is Serious from Back Pain After a Fall?
If you’ve had a recent fall and you’re in doubt about the severity of the injury, it might be a good idea to consult with your physician—just in case. In general, however, if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, the injury might be more severe than you realize, and you should be evaluated by a doctor:
- Ongoing back pain that doesn’t improve with time
- Pain that lasts more than 6 weeks
- Severe pain that doesn’t lessen with traditional treatment methods (outlined below)
- Back and abdominal pain
- Numbness or altered sensory perception in the upper-inner thighs or the buttock, genital, or groin areas
- Severe pain that disturbs your sleep
Types of Back Pain After a Fall
Nearly 22,000 people visit the ER every day after having a bad fall, and those falls can create several different types of injuries:
- Sprains & Strains – Occur when ligaments and tendons are stretched or torn from an impact, bone displacement, or tissue tear
- Tailbone Injuries – Occur when direct impact from a fall causes pain, inflammation, or tenderness at the bottom of the spine
- Discogenic Pain – Occurs when an abrupt landing fractures, herniates, or dislocates the vertebrae and/or discs in the spine
- Spinal Cord Injuries – Occur when the abrupt trauma is so powerful that it impacts the spinal cord, causing potentially permanent damage
Symptoms of a Back Injury From a Fall
Symptoms of an acute back injury can present in many ways, but these are the most common:
- Pain or tenderness that worsens with movement
- Pain that radiates down one or both legs
- Muscle spasms on either side of the spine
- Stiffness; difficulty moving
- Difficulty standing upright
If you’re experiencing any of these following symptoms after a fall, it could be the sign of a serious back injury. If your symptoms match any of the items on this list, please seek emergency medical treatment or call 911 immediately:
- Shortness of breath; difficulty breathing
- Numbness/pins-and-needles sensation in the extremities
- Blood in the urine
How Do You Treat a Back Injury After a Fall?
You’ve probably heard that the cure for a minor back injury is bed rest, but some doctors might disagree, suggesting a gentle exercise program as the best at-home treatment. Unless you’re experiencing serious issues causing back pain (muscle weakness, fever, loss of control of the bowels or bladder, weight loss, etc.) or your physician directs you to do so, it’s important to stay as active as possible.
Adhering to these tips can help you relieve back pain at home:
- DO NOT engage in exercise for 2–3 weeks after the injury
- DO NOT perform activities involving twisting of the back or lifting heavy objects for 6 weeks after the injury
- Pause normal physical activity for 48–72 hours for 20 minutes every 3–4 hours to reduce inflammation/swelling
- Apply an ice pack to the affected area for the first 48–72 hours and then switch to heat—warm showers, baths, and compresses can help ease recovery
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB)
How Long Does It Take to Heal Back Pain After a Fall?
Generally, most acute back pain will begin to improve on its own within 1–4 weeks. Depending on the circumstances and severity of the injury, it could take longer to heal if you don’t seek medical attention or if you have other risk factors, like advanced age, osteoporosis, or other serious medical conditions. Lifestyle choices like engaging in sports, work environment, and general health also contribute to your healing time.
Pain that continues for 12 weeks or more is considered chronic back pain—even if the initial cause of the injury is treated. Chronic back pain will, more often than not, require some form of medical attention before the injury is healed and you’re pain-free.
5 Tips to Reduce Fall Risk
- Talk to your doctor and be prepared to answer questions like:
- What medications are you taking?
- Have you fallen before?
- Do you have an underlying health condition that caused the fall?
- Perform strength and balance exercises to improve balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility.
- Make your home safer and remove dangerous obstacles that may cause you to trip and fall from high-traffic areas:
- Secure loose rugs with double-sided tape
- Immediately clean spilled liquid or grease from the floor
- Use a non-slip bath mat, or invest in a bath seat so you can sit down while you’re showering
- Install railing on both sides of all interior and exterior staircases
- Have your eyes checked to ensure your fall wasn’t caused by an unknown neurological issue or degenerative eye disease.
- Wear shoes whenever possible, or purchase non-slip socks with grip soles if shoes cause too much discomfort.
Put Back Pain Behind You—Village Emergency Centers
For millions of Americans, fall prevention is the same as injury prevention. It’s important to be careful when performing dangerous home maintenance tasks, like climbing atop the roof, or whenever you’re out in inclement weather. If you do sustain a fall and are worried that the accident could have caused more serious, permanent damage, call your doctor immediately—back pain after a fall can be a serious risk to your health if left untreated.