Back pain doesn’t discriminate. It affects the young and old, athletes and those who are more sedentary, and everyone in between. It’s a “top medical complaint” and also a “leading cause of missed work,” said the MAYO CLINIC. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke “reports that Americans spend about $50 billion a year on treating low back pain” and trying to control chronic pain.
How do you know if the aches and pains or something more serious?
“How do you know when that achy pain in your back is more than you can handle alone? There are several red flags that doctors look for when evaluating low back pain,” said WebMD. “The purpose of these warning signs is to detect fractures, tumors, or infections of the spine.”
Paying attention to back pain danger signs can help you keep your back in good shape or address conditions before they get worse.
1. Unexplained Pain
If you haven’t strained or injured your back in some way, worked out extra hard, had a fall, are in the later months of pregnancy, or are in the middle of your menstrual cycle, yet you’re experiencing debilitating back pain, you should see a qualified back doctor. Signs to watch out for include pain that does not improve with rest and increased pain and stiffness in the morning. This could indicate a number of conditions including a form of spinal arthritis.
2. Pain in Conjunction With Fever
“Sure, your back just could be achy and tight from the flu, but an unresponsive fever accompanied by back pain also could be a sign of a serious infection,” said WebMD. “It’s indicative of something more systemic,” like infection.
It’s always a good idea to see a back doctor after a fall or other traumatic incident that creates back pain. Letting the pain go on too long can exacerbate the injury, creating a chronic back condition that’s harder to treat. Chronic back pain can also have detrimental effects on your work performance, relationships, and mental state.
4. Numbness or Tingling
Experiencing a pins-and-needles feeling or numbness in your back can mean nerve damage or irritation that can get worse and become dangerous without treatment. Conditions like herniated discs and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine that can create nerve and spinal pressure, are treatable; left alone, they may lead to permanent damage and disability.
“Spinal stenosis is one of the most common causes of spinal pain not related to injury,” said the Cleveland Clinic. “This narrowing of the space around the spinal cord puts pressure on the nerves.”
5. Reduced Bowel or Bladder Function
Severe trauma to the spine or a serious, untreated condition (again, like a herniated disk or spinal stenosis) can lead to severe nerve damage that affects the body’s ability to function properly. Loss of bowel or bladder function in addition to back pain, and potentially numbness and weakness in the legs, requires an immediate call to your doctor or trusted medical professional.
“If you are experiencing true numbness around the groin and buttocks and/or failure of bladder or bowel control, please consider it a serious emergency — do not wait to see if it goes away,” said PainScience. These symptoms indicate spinal cord injury or compression and require immediate medical attention.”
If you have a history of cancer, experiencing back pain is an important reason to put a call in to your doctor to rule out a recurrence.
“Many kinds of cancer can cause many kinds of back pain, but some strong themes are: the pain grows steadily and is mostly unaffected by position and activity, worse with weight bearing and at night, and comes with other signs of being unwell,” said PainScience.
7. Other Immune System Deficiencies
If you start to experience back pain and know you have a family history autoimmune disease, see a doctor. This is especially true if you are under 40 and the pain is getting progressively worse, especially in the morning, and you have pain in other joints.
Continual back pain, especially in those over 50, could indicate osteoporosis, and weakening bones over time are responsible for more frequent and dangerous fractures.
9. Back Pain at Night
Pain that worsens while you sleep is not just annoying; it can indicate a number of back issues, including a sprain, degenerating disc, or even cancer.
10. Prolonged Pain
“Ninety percent of back pain cases get better within six weeks,” said WebMD, so “Your doctor will want to investigate more serious underlying causes if your pain is still severe after that much time passes.”
In some cases, chronic pain and serious conditions will require surgery, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. The good news for those suffering from chronic pain are the advances in minimally invasive surgical techniques that make treating chronic back pain easier than ever, with outpatient treatment for back injuries, small incisions, and a quicker recovery time instead of a long hospital stay.