5 Signs Your Back Pain Might Signal A More Serious Problem
Back pain is incredibly common—80% of people have it at some point—and it’s usually nothing to worry about. Most of the time it’s caused by a muscle sprain or strain or a herniated disc, and there’s a solid chance that it will get better on its own, says Allen Chen, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine at Columbia
University Medical Center in NYC. If your ache started recently, you might not even need to see a doctor or take a pill: Non-invasive treatments like massage, exercise, and yoga (try these 7 poses) will often do the trick, according to the latest guidelines from the American College of Physicians.
That said, sometimes back pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is majorly off, and that
you ought to call for help right away. The following red flags are clues that it’s time to call your doctor—or possibly head to the ER.
1. You’ve lost control of your bladder or bowels.
It could be cauda equina syndrome, a rare disorder—it affects only about 1 in 33,000 people—in which the nerve roots in your lumbar spine become compressed, cutting off all sensation and movement. “I’ve
only seen two patients with back pain who had it in my entire 24-year career, but both needed surgery within the day,” says Matt Likins, PT, owner of 1st Choice Physical Therapy in Detroit. If you don’t get surgery ASAP, it can lead to paralysis, complete loss of bladder and/or bowel control, and sexual dysfunction.
2. It occurs at night.
Most back pain sufferers can adjust their sleeping position to ease the ache while getting some zzzs. But if finding a comfy spot seems impossible—or the pain doesn’t even start until you slip between the sheets—you need to see your doctor. (Find out what your sleep issues say about your health.) It could be a sign of a spinal tumor, says White Plains, NY-based chiropractor Robert Silverman, author of Inside-Out Health. Another (similarly frightening) possibility is a spinal bone infection. Either way, you’ll need
prompt medical attention.
3. It’s hard to pinpoint.
Pain in your upper or lower back that doesn’t seem tied to a specific muscle or joint may signal a heart attack, especially if it started in your chest and then spread, according to the American Heart Association. Severe back pain that comes on suddenly is at least worth a call to your doctor, but head straight for the ER if you also have jaw pain, nausea, overwhelming fatigue, or shortness of breath.
4. It’s accompanied by really bad morning stiffness.
It’s normal to have some aches and creakiness in the AM, but if it lasts longer than 30 minutes and gets worse when you aren’t moving, you could have a form of inflammatory arthritis like ankylosing spondylitis, which affects about 1.4% of the population, says Chen. If you don’t treat this condition your vertebrae may actually fuse together, making it hard for you to move around. Ankylosing spondylitis also increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, so you really don’t want to ignore it. Treatment usually includes over-the-counter or prescription NSAIDs, as well as a “biologic” drugs (like infliximab or etanercept) that work to inhibit inflammation.
5. You’re already at high risk for fractures.
If you’ve been in a recent accident, take oral steroids (which can weaken your bones), or have been diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis, any back pain warrants a visit to your doctor to get checked out, says Chen. You may have a spine fracture, which can lead to height loss, stooped posture, and even breathing and digestive problems. You may need a back brace, pain meds, physical therapy, and in some cases surgery for the fracture to heal properly.