8 Signs It's Time to See a Doctor for Back or Neck Pain

Back Pain
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Most cases of back pain go away on their own.  But some of your symptoms may point to the need to see a doctor. In fact,  certain types of back pain may even require a trip to the emergency room.

When you're in doubt about the severity or meaning of your symptoms, a call to your primary care doc is in order. Meanwhile, here are  8 signs your back may need medical attention.

Neck or Back Pain That Keeps You Up At Night

Back pain that keeps you up at night, or gets worse when you rest, is probably not life-threatening. That said, you should get it checked, especially if you have a fever.  A fever that accompanies back or neck pain may be a sign of an infection such as meningitis.  Infections can get serious, fast, so don't delay that call to your doctor — prompt diagnosis and treatment may even save your life.

You Have Had Cancer

If you have a history of cancer, and you are experiencing back pain for the first time, consult with your doctor as soon as possible. 

According to the American Cancer Society, a growing cancer might put pressure on organs, nerves and/or blood vessels, and this pressure, in turn, may cause back pain. What's worse, the pain may not occur until the tumor is fairly large. So heed the symptoms and call your doctor asap.

You are Over 50

As we age, the potential for back pain increases.

In women, the increase may coincide with the advent of perimenopause, according to a 2015 study.

And because aging is often accompanied by a slow down and a more sedentary lifestyle, it can contribute to obesity, which may increase pain. Another thing the study mentioned above found was that obesity (i.e., a BMI over 30) increases the prevalence of pain in the female population.

If you're over 50 and have back pain, your doctor may be able to work with you on a pain control plan — using a combination of physical therapy, weight management and other treatments.

You Are Having Bowel or Bladder Problems, Or Your Legs Keep Getting Weaker

If controlling your bladder or bowel has become a challenge, and/or your legs have been growing progressively weaker, you should see a doctor or go to the emergency room immediately. These are potential symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, which is generally considered to be a medical emergency.

You Have Had a Fall, Accident or Other Trauma

Have recently been injured via a fall, blow or accident?  Back or neck pain that follows may have been caused by the trauma. Even if you walked away from the experience seemingly okay, new back pain, that comes on, say, a few hours to a few days later, may be related to the impact you sustained.

By the way, if you have osteoporosis, and have recently fallen, the likelihood of an injury to your spine may be increased.

Your Pain Radiates Down One Leg

Pain, weakness, numbness and/or electrical sensations that go down one leg is often called sciatica.  Although sciatica symptoms may result from a tight piriformis muscle (leading to a condition known as piriformis syndrome) these symptoms are more often due to pressure on a spinal nerve root.

 Symptoms that result from pressure on a spinal nerve root are called radiulopathy.

Your doctor will likely try to elicit your sciatica symptoms (by testing your dermatomes, which are areas of skin served by spinal nerve roots.)  In doing so, she may be able to identify the exact spinal nerve root or roots that are irritated.  This will help make your treatment accurate.

Radiculopathy is often caused by a herniated disc, but can also be due to other things that press on spinal nerve roots.

Bending or Flexing Your Low Back Makes Your Symptoms Worse

Leg pain that gets worse when you bend over or lift your knees towards your chest is another thing that may indicate a disc problem.

  Disc problems can include bulging discs,  herniated discs, or degenerative disc disease.

Spinal Stenosis Symptoms

Cramping, weakness, pain and/or tingling in your legs, especially when you walk are classic symptoms of spinal stenosis (called neurogenic claudication.)  Speak with your doctor about these symptoms as soon as you can.

Your Pain Persists

Has your pain lasted longer than 3 weeks? If so, it may be chronic. Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than the expected healing time for an injury. Once pain becomes chronic, it plays by a different set of rules, becoming amplified and/or abberated. Early diagnosis and treatment are key: The sooner you can get your pain accurately assessed, and treatment started, the better you will likely be in terms of your healing outcomes. 



American Cancer Society. What are signs and symptoms? Signs and Symptoms of Cancers. American Cancer Society website. August 2014. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/signs-and-symptoms-of-cancer.html

Kozinoga, M., Low back pain in women before and after menopause. Prz Menopauzalny. Sept. 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4612559/

Seven Back Pain Warning Signs. North American Spine Society. 2001