When will my back feel better?
The spine is a complex structure of bone and muscle, supported by cartilage, tendons, and ligaments, and fed by a network of blood vessels and nerves. Because of this complexity and the constant forces the spinal tissues have to cope with, tissue healing and rehabilitation can take time following injury. But back and neck pain can also resolve surprisingly quickly. It’s not always easy to predict what course a particular episode of acute spinal pain will take, however, we do know a lot about the kinds of treatment and activity factors that help people avoid chronic pain issues.
It’s important to keep in mind that recovery timeframes depend on your age, general health, how long the problem has been present, and sometimes the extent of tissue changes in the affected area. The earlier you start active management with a positive outlook the better long-term outcome you will achieve.
When you have back pain, especially if it’s severe or been there for a few weeks, many people find it is difficult to imagine a future without it. Almost everyone will recover, though. The path is rarely a quick, straight line, and for some people it can feel like it’s taking forever – keep working on it, it won’t be forever!
*image from paincloud.com
Listed below are the most common spinal soft tissue and joint injuries and the average healing times with conservative treatment. This has been compiled using information from:
WorkCoverSA. Annual Report 2007-2008. Adelaide WorkCoverSA, October 2008.
Apley’s System of Orthopaedics and Fractures. 8th ed: Arnold Publishing London; 2001.
Bailey & Love’s Short Practice of Surgery. 23rd ed:, Arnold Publishing London; 2000.
The Medical Disability Advisor. 2nd ed:, LRP Publications, Pennsylvania; 1994.
Non-specific mechanical pain, Sprain/strain injuries:
Expected healing time: 4 weeks – 3 months
While pain may continue beyond 4-6 weeks from date of onset, there is strong evidence that implementing active management strategies is associated with better long-term outcomes. Symptoms are frequently recurrent if the region is not sufficiently rehabilitated/strengthened or the source of tissue strain or irritation (e.g. overuse, repetitive strain, mechanical dysfunction) is not remedied.
Disc injury & nerve root irritation:
Expected healing time: 6 weeks – 2 years
Most nerve root problems respond well to conservative management with manual and movement therapy. After 6 weeks from date of onset the risk of aggravation or a further disc protrusion has returned to pre-injury risk, however, complete resolution of the symptoms can take 6 months to 2 years (most people recover within in the first 12 months). Only in some circumstances is surgery a consideration.
Degenerative changes & facet joint inflammation:
Expected healing time: 6 weeks – 3 months
This is more common as we age. While pain may continue beyond 6 weeks from date of onset, there is strong evidence that implementing active management strategies is associated with better long-term functional outcomes. As there is also evidence of a greater likelihood of longer term or re-occurring symptoms with this presentation, it may be important to continue periodic maintenance treatment and active self-management.