When to See a Doctor for Back or Neck Pain

Signs Your Back Pain Needs Medical Attention

Back Pain
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Most of the time back pain resolves by itself. However, there are a few signs that may indicate the need for a doctor's appointment or, in some cases, a trip to the emergency room. When in doubt, it is important to call your doctor.

Your Pain Keeps You Up At Night

If your back pain actually gets worse when you rest, or keeps you up at night, it is most likely not life-threatening but should still be investigated.

If you have a fever, it could be an infection such as meningitis and prompt care is important.

You Have Had Cancer or Are Older than 50

If you have a history of cancer, and you are experiencing back pain for the first time, consult your doctor as soon as possible. It's also important to see your doctor if you have back pain and you are older than 50.

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

If you are having problems controlling your bladder or bowel and/or your legs have been growing progressively weaker, you should see a doctor or go to the emergency room immediately. These are possible symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, a type of back pain that is a medical emergency.

You Have Had a Fall, Accident or Other Trauma

If you have recently been injured via a fall, blow or accident and you have back pain, it may have been caused by this trauma. Even if you walked away from that experience feeling OK, the back pain you are having now may be a result of the impact, so it is important to have it checked.

If you have osteoporosis, and you have had a recent fall, the likelihood of an injury to your spine is increased.

Your Pain Radiates Down One Leg

If you have pain down your leg, you may have sciatica, as this is the main symptom. Generally, sciatica symptoms are caused by damage to one or more spinal structures, which in turn put pressure on a nerve, irritating it.

The nerves leave the spine and travel out to the rest of the body. Each nerve is responsible for supplying sensation and movement for a specific area of the body. These areas are called dermatomes. You might want to think of dermatomes as coverage area for each nerve. The sciatic nerve is the largest one in the body, and when it is irritated, usually by a herniated disk, the result is sciatica.

Bending or Flexing Your Low Back Makes Your Symptoms Worse

If you have leg pain and it gets worse when you bend over or lift your knees toward your chest, you may have a disk problem. Disk problems range from bulging disks, to herniated disks, or they can be the result of degenerative disk disease.

Your Legs Go Numb or Weak When You Walk

If you have numbness or weakness in your legs when you walk, you should speak to your doctor about the possibility of spinal stenosis.

Your Pain Persists and Doesn't Go Away

Has your pain lasted longer than 3 weeks? If so, it may be chronic pain. 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. The sooner you can get chronic pain accurately diagnosed and treated, the more successful your treatment is likely to be.


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

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