Back Pain After Falling on Ice

The likelihood of taking a fall on a sidewalk or driveway increases proportionally with the amount of freezing rain and ice. And oh that aching back that may result.

So now what do you do? Joseph Chen, MD, Medical Director of the Iowa Spine Research and Rehabilitation Center at UI Hospitals and Clinics, has some suggestions about how to take care of a back injury from falling.

Chen suggests wearing appropriate boots. "Snow boots, even though they can track mud into your house, provide a lot more traction for your feet than do dress shoes or even tennis shoes.

"Take shorter steps and try to plant your whole foot gently down instead of using the typical heel strike that we use when we're walking or running," he says.

If you do fall on the ice and know immediately you have hurt your back, Chen says you should slowly try to get up. "It may be a bit more difficult to get up on your hands and knees if there's a large patch of ice. Be extra careful, and then walk slowly, using an extra handhold if one is available."

Most of the time, falls on the ice lead to a strain of some of the deep muscles in the back. "Try to do some stretching exercises and take it a bit easy for the next few hours," Chen says. "If you're able to take some Tylenol or ibuprofen, that may be helpful too."

"Ice typically has more pain-relieving qualities than does heat," Chen says. "Ice can be helpful when used over the next 24 to 48 hours to decrease some of the inflammation that may have occurred." If your back still bothers you after a few days, using a hot pack can be helpful. Most physicians advise against electric heating pads that apply constant heat because these devices can lead to skin burns if left on for a long time, such as overnight.

Since most acute back injuries involve strains of some of the deep muscles in the back, most people don't need to see a doctor. "If you have risk factors for thinning of the bones or osteoporosis, or have severe pain that makes breathing or standing difficult, you may want to see a doctor to get some x-rays," Chen says. "Trouble sitting and radiating pain down your leg when trying to straighten out your knee may indicate a herniated disc, which causes a nerve root irritation." "This can get better," Chen says, "but generally may need physical therapy, medications, possibly injections or even back surgery."

Most acute back injuries should get better within a few days to a few weeks, Chen says. "If you have pain longer than that, you should probably see a physician or a physical therapist."

"If a thorough medical evaluation does not reveal any specific structural problem like a fracture or nerve irritation, then a basic exercise program focusing on stretching, strengthening and conditioning of the back and leg muscles can be helpful." Chen says.

Department of Orthopedics
University of Iowa Health Science Relations