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Top causes of back pain and when to see a doctor

Posted July 13, 2020 by Aisha Rahman, MD

Most of us have experienced back pain at one time or another. We’ve woken up in the morning with an aching back or come in after a hard day’s work in the yard only to be greeted with a sore back.  

Considering the vital role your back and spinal column play in your everyday life, it’s no surprise as much as 80 percent of adults will experience back pain at some point. In fact, back pain is one of the most common reason for missed work and second most common reason for doctor visits.

Back pain is common, but surely we can’t go to the doctor every time we have an ache or pain. So, when is it time to see the doctor? 

Back pain from the occasional muscle flare-up normally will go away with some over-the-counter medicine, ice/heat, rest and stretches. But when those everyday pains become more intense for weeks at a time or you experience reoccurring back pain, it’s time to talk with a doctor. Back pain shouldn’t stop you from daily activities and living your life.

Muscle strains and sprains are common causes of back pain and can occur as a result of improper lifting, our fitness level, poor posture and weight. However, back pain also can result from a more serious injury, infection or chronic condition, including degenerative problems, arthritis, nerve impingement or spinal stenosis. Without proper treatment, these conditions can be debilitating and, in come cases, cause permanent harm.

Summa Health discusses six symptoms associated with back pain that you shouldn’t ignore. While you may be quick to dismiss your back pain as something you can manage on your own, there are times when you’ll need to be evaluated by a doctor to get back up on your feet again. 

1. Prolonged back pain or pain shooting down your arm or leg
Most causes of back pain should get better within a few days up to twelve weeks with rest, heat or ice, and over-the-counter medicine. 

If you’re still experiencing severe back pain that hasn’t subsided after several weeks, it’s time to be evaluated by your doctor to rule out underlying conditions. If your pain shoots down your arms or legs, it could indicate something more serious, such as a herniated disc.

2. Trauma
Back pain from severe trauma occurs almost immediately. If you’re injured from a serious accident or experience a hard fall, such as falling off a ladder or down the stairs, be sure to get your back evaluated by a doctor. You want to rule out a fracture, spinal cord injury or other serious conditions. 

3. Weakness, tingling or numbness in your arms or legs
Be sure to tell your doctor if you feel tingling or numbness down your arms or legs. Typically, it is a sign of nerve irritation or damage caused by compression and could be due to a herniated disc or spinal stenosis, where the spinal canal narrows. If left untreated, nerve damage can lead to permanent disabilities.

4. Nighttime pain
Keep track of when your pain is at its worst. If the pain intensifies at nighttime or as soon as you lie down, it could be a sign of disc degeneration or a sprain, or something more serious, such as a spinal tumor. Don’t ignore nighttime back pain. Be sure to see your doctor right away for an evaluation. 

5. Fever or sudden weight loss
A fever of 100.4 degrees or above could be a sign of an infection. Spinal infections can occur from infections in other parts of the body that travel to the spine. They also can develop from back injuries. Other signs of infection may include: swelling, muscle spasms, or redness and tenderness in the back. If it is an infection, antibiotics may be prescribed.

In addition, be sure to tell your doctor if you experience sudden weight loss without dieting. Unexplained weight loss could be a sign of an infection or spinal tumors as possible causes for your back pain. 

6. Balance issues, or trouble controlling your bladder or bowels
Back pain paired with a loss of bladder or bowel control could point to a rare, but serious condition called cauda equina syndrome, where the nerve roots in the lower spinal cord have been compressed and become paralyzed. You may also experience sudden weakness or numbness in your hips.

There are several conditions that can cause this syndrome, including a herniated disc, fracture, spinal tumor, spinal stenosis or trauma to the spine. Cauda equina syndrome is a serious condition and requires immediate medical attention to prevent serious complications.


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