Back pain is very common, and you are more likely to experience it at some point in your life. The main causes of back pain are sprains and muscle strains. They are usually caused by poor posture, improper lifting, or even lack of exercise. These types of minor back pain can be remedied with a lot of rest and an ice pack. However, if the pain persists, it could indicate a more severe injury or an infection, and you may have to see your doctor. Here are five signs that you need to see a doctor.
If your back pain is followed by tingling, numbness in the legs or back, you should see a doctor immediately. This could result from nerve damage or irritation, and it’s more severe than the typical back pain. When the pain persists, you may be experiencing various conditions such as spinal stenosis and herniation that can cause nerve pressure. When left unchecked, nerve damage and irritation can lead to permanent disabilities.
Your doctor should perform the primary evaluation since the course of treatment will depend on the diagnosis. Spine imaging can also be done to check nerve conduction. According to Semmes Murphey Clinic, which specializes in spine care, most back pain gradually improves with home treatment and self-care, usually within two weeks. If not, see your doctor and contact a doctor if your pain:
- is severe and doesn’t improve with rest
- continues for a max of 10-14 days
- spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain extends below the knee
- causes weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs
- is accompanied by unexplained weight loss
- is accompanied by headaches or fever
- Includes stiffness in the lower back area that restricts the range of motion
- leaves you unable to maintain normal posture due to stiffness and/or pain
- causes muscle spasms either with activity or at rest
- Also, see your doctor if you start having back pain for the first time after age 50, or if you have a history of cancer, osteoporosis, steroid use, or drug or alcohol abuse.
Loss of bladder control and bowel accompanied with back pain could be a sign of a rare and severe condition known as cauda equina syndrome. This condition occurs when compression of the nerve roots on the lower part of the spinal cord causes paralysis. A doctor can perform a surgical decompression procedure to relieve the pressure causing damage to the nerve and restore nerve function.
An unresponsive fever followed by back pain could be a sign of a severe infection or something more systemic. Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics if it’s an infection, but if it’s not, a lot of rest can help relieve the pain. In other circumstances, an infection causing the fever could cause back pain. Taking a few days to rest before resuming daily activities can help but taking more than two days of rest can worsen the back pain.
If you are experiencing prolonged back pain for more than six weeks, you may have to see your doctor. Almost 90% of back pain subsides in less than six weeks, so it could be due to underlying issues if it persists. Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and perform a physical exam to determine a diagnosis. They may also order imaging tests and blood work for further analysis.
Another type of pain you may experience is night pain. If you do not experience any pain during the day, but your back starts to hurt at night, disturbing your sleep, you need to see a doctor. The pain could result from a sprain, disc degeneration, or something more serious like a tumor or cancer. Do not ignore night back pain but visit your doctor to have an MRI or blood work to check for signs of infection or tumor.
If you are experiencing back pain and you have a history of cancer, then your doctor may have to rule it out as a possible cause. A history of chronic steroid use and osteoporosis can also be causing back pain due to a fracture. Another possible reason for back pain is immune suppression which can cause an infection.
Your doctor can order tests such as an MRI or blood work to check for an infection or a tumor. An X-ray can help determine whether fractures can be treated using physical therapy, medication, or surgery. If you have an infection, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If you have cancer spread to the spine, you have to go through radiation therapy and use medications to manage the pain.
Other causes of back pain include advanced age and prolonged use of IV drugs. People over 70 years have a higher risk for tumors, risk of infections, and other causes of back pain. In these cases, the doctor may perform blood work to check for infections and prescribe antibiotics to manage the pain.
You should not ignore back pain to prevent worsening the problem. Your doctor can help you treat any underlying medical issues causing the symptoms.