Back Pain: When Should You See a Physician?
More than 30 million Americans suffer back pain at any one time, and most people experience it at least once in their lifetime. Back pain is reportedly the third most common reason patients visit the doctor’s office.
While it’s certainly uncomfortable and unpleasant, a bout of back pain usually stems from muscle strain, injury, or arthritis. It’s extremely rare that it signals a more serious illness.
However, there are certain “red flag” symptoms that warrant a visit to your physician, and some that demand immediate medical attention.
When to Consult Your Doctor
Consult with your doctor if:
- Your back pain lingers more than six weeks
- You lose weight without trying
- You have back pain that isn’t relieved by rest or that is worse at night
- You have any of these symptoms along with fever, chills, and shakes, or loss of appetite
- You have pain that follows an injury or fall
When to Seek Emergency Help
Seek emergency care if your back pain is accompanied by:
- Numbness in the “saddle region” — the groin, the buttocks and genitals, and the upper inner thighs. This could be a sign of cauda equine syndrome, which is caused by pressure on a bundle of nerves at the base of the spinal cord in the lumbar region (lower back). These nerves branch out to serve the lower limbs and the pelvic organs, including the bladder and rectum.
- Increasing weakness in your legs
- “Foot drop” — limpness in the front of the foot that impedes walking
- Bladder or bowel incontinence
- Severe abdominal pain
Tumors that originate in the spine (primary tumors) are very uncommon. However, tumors may develop and trigger pain when cancer has spread from another site (metastasis).
Metastatic spinal tumors may stem from breast, lung, colon, or prostate cancer. Cancer patients who develop back pain or neurological symptoms such as weakness, numbness, or “pins and needles” in the arms or legs should consult with their oncologist right away.
The Brain and Spine Tumor Center of the Lifespan Cancer Institute at Rhode Island Hospital, The Miriam Hospital and Newport Hospital offers patients profound expertise in diagnosis, treatment, and support.