Back pain typically isn’t something to stress about ― but there are a few specific circumstances in which you might want to, well, watch your back.
Lower back pain is extremely common, affecting approximately 1 in 8 people, according to Neel Anand, a professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. The good news is that 80-90 percent of lower back pain is innocuous and comes and goes, according to Anand.
“It can bring you down for a few days or a week, but generally, low back pain gets better quickly and you can get on with your life,” he said.
When it comes to treating mild back pain, an anti-inflammatory such as Advil or aspirin, moderated rest (limiting activities that cause strain on your back — but not complete bed rest) and regularly icing the affected area can help.
But when back pain is more than just a nuisance, getting it checked by a doctor can make all the difference in preventing a more serious health issue. Here, experts share the back pains you shouldn’t wait out or completely ignore:
Back Pain With Loss Of Bladder Control
If you have back pain paired with the inability to regulate your bladder or bowel movements, that’s a sign you need to head to the ER.
“This means there’s something in the spinal canal, such as a disc herniation or lesion, compressing your nerves to the extent that it’s affected the nerves of the bladder and bowel, creating temporary paralysis,” Anand said. “If this nerve is compressed for too long, it can be difficult for it to recover and function normally again.”
Back Pain With Fevers
If you find your back pain flares up along with a fever, it may be a sign of something more serious like an infection, said David Anderson, a spine surgeon at OrthoCarolina in Monroe, North Carolina.
“This is exceedingly rare, and of course people can have fevers for all kinds of reasons, but when it comes with continuous back pain, it can cause worry for an epidural abscess [a collection of pus that can affect the brain or spinal cord],” he said.
Back Pain With Accompanying Leg Pain
Radiating pain that can start anywhere from the butt down through the leg, along with numbness, tingling or leg weakness ― such as dragging your foot when you walk or having difficulty lifting it ― is another sign that a nerve or collection of nerves is being pinched, Anand said. This can be caused by a bone spur (small projections that develop along bone edges), disc herniation (a problem with a rubber-like disk between the spinal bones) or stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal that happens slowly).
And while stenosis can’t be completely cured, Anderson added that many people with this chronic condition can easily learn what their triggers are and how to manage their symptoms so they become tolerable in day-to-day life.
Upper Back Pain Near The Neck
“A lot of people get pain in their upper back below the neck and think it’s back pain, but it’s not,” Anand said. “That pain is coming from your neck, and the reason it’s different is because that’s your spinal cord. You actually have spinal cord running through your neck, which is a direct extension of your brain.”
If you have upper back pain that’s associated with tingling or weakness in the hands, or you notice you’re walking unsteadily and have changes in your gait, it could be a sign something is going on in your spinal cord that needs to be checked by a physician.
“People may assume that things like difficulty with buttons on their shirts or putting in earrings is common with old age and possibly due to arthritis, but if this is happening continuously, you need to see a doctor and get a neurologic exam,” Anand said. “If caught early, damage can be prevented but if the spinal cord is affected, it often does not get better.”