How to Handle Back Injuries at Work



According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA), back injuries at work are second only to hand injuries as the most prevalent workplace injury. Common workplace back injuries include:

  • Lower back strain
  • Bulging, herniated, and slipped discs
  • Fractured vertebrae
  • Pinched nerves
  • Spinal cord damage

Most workplace back injuries are the result of overextension (twisting) of the spine from heavy lifting, pulling, pushing, or poor posture while sitting for prolonged periods. Back injuries at work are often painful and require extended treatment and recovery periods.

Causes of Back Pain

Back pain from a workplace injury can have several causes. It can come from a single act, like lifting a box that's too heavy, or from a gradual, persistent strain on back muscles, ligaments, and the disks protecting your vertebrae. Repetitive motions, such as lifting, pulling, pushing, loading, and even sitting improperly can eventually cause your back to weaken or become strained.

Back pain can be acute or chronic:

  • Acute pain comes on quickly, but diminishes within three to six weeks. While acute back pain can be excruciating, it is temporary.

  • Chronic pain continues for more than six weeks. Chronic back pain can be present for years, or even last a lifetime.

The spinal column is composed of twenty-four moving vertebrae and nine that are fused. In between each moving vertebra is a disk. These are filled with fluid and act as shock absorbers, separating and cushioning each vertebra. A back injury can cause one or more disks to protrude or herniate. Without the cushioning disks, vertebrae rub against each other and spinal nerves become inflamed, causing pain.

Ligaments of dense tissue around the spine keep the spinal column in place while allowing it to bend and twist. When the spine is severely overextended, the ligaments can stretch out of place or tear, which causes severe pain and discomfort.

Muscles extend up and down the spinal column on both sides of the vertebrae. These muscles help with lifting, pulling or pushing heavy loads. Like muscles anywhere in the body, overextension, sprains, and tears can happen.

The spinal column surrounds and protects the spinal cord. The spinal cord has thousands of nerve endings that send messages between the brain and body. A spinal cord injury can be physically devastating and may lead to paralysis or even death.

What to Do If You Suffer a Back Injury at Work

If you sustain an injury at work, you're entitled to workers' compensation benefits. Those benefits pay for your medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses, costs of transportation to and from treatment, and approximately two-thirds of your lost wages.

The workers' comp process begins when you first report your injury to your employer or designated supervisor. The first report of injury is usually filed on a DWC-1 form. You record specific information about the date, time, and cause of your injury on this form. If you're seriously injured and must be hospitalized, you may not be able to complete the form until you're stable.

After reporting your injury, you'll get a list of company-approved physicians from your employer. You have to choose one as your primary physician. The primary physician is responsible for evaluating you and making referrals to specialists or other healthcare providers, such as orthopedists, podiatrists, or chiropractors.

When your physician determines you've reached a level of MMI (Maximum Medical Improvement), she'll give you a return to work form. The form states whether or not you are cleared to return to your former job.

If your back injury is diagnosed as:

  • Temporary partial disability, you may be able to resume your former job duties after a recovery period.

  • Permanent partial disability, you may be able to return to work, but not at your former job duties. If possible, your employer may assign you to a different position that accommodates your disability. (If such a position isn't available, you may have to seek employment elsewhere.)

  • Permanent total disability, you won't be able to return to your former job.

Treatment for Back Pain

Treatment for back injuries at work ranges from mild (applying hot and cold compresses), to extensive (surgery as a last resort). Your physician may recommend drugs to reduce pain and inflammation, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).

To control severe pain, she may prescribe narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin, Percodan, or other powerful medications. Additional treatment can include chiropractic care, massage, ultrasound therapy, and whirlpools.

Most injured employees want to get back to work as soon as possible. Surviving on partial wages can be stressful and frustrating; however, failing to follow your prescribed course of treatment, or returning to work before you're ready can delay your recovery. You can be re-injured, or get a new, secondary injury related to your primary back injury.

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