When Is It Back Pain, and When Is It Something More?
By Benjamin Duckles, MD, Virtua Anesthesiologist/Pain Management Specialist
Back pain can affect your ability to perform your everyday tasks and is one of the most common reasons for doctor visits and missed days of work. Although back pain often can be attributed to minor injuries caused by a hard workout, moving furniture, or working in the yard, it can sometimes point to a more serious condition and warrant a visit to your doctor.
What causes back pain?
Most people develop back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain usually is caused by a minor injury or everyday wear and tear. As you age, it’s normal to experience occasional back pain in your muscles or ligaments, especially after performing strenuous or new activities. This type of back pain usually comes on suddenly and you may be able to identify the cause.
However, back pain also can be chronic (meaning that it lasts longer than three months) or it can develop without a specific cause. And sometimes, it’s caused by more serious conditions, including:
- Herniated disc
- Severe trauma
- Spinal stenosis
When should I try home treatment for back pain?
If you’re experiencing mild back pain due to a minor injury, it’s typically safe to try home treatment before seeing your doctor. Most mild cases of back pain improve within a few days of starting home treatment and go away within 2-4 weeks. If you’re experiencing mild back pain, you may want to try home treatments, including:
- Ice: Ice is most beneficial within the first 24-72 hours of injury because it can help reduce pain and swelling.
- Heat: If you’ve experienced a back injury, heat is most beneficial after the 72-hour mark because it helps relax tight muscles. Heat also can be used to treat chronic back pain that’s not related to injury.
- Stretching: Gentle stretching can relieve back pain and prevent future injury.
- Activity: Active back muscles heal faster. Although moving around can help to lengthen muscles and reduce swelling, stick to gentle activities and avoid movements that cause pain.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers: Anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen can relieve pain and decrease swelling. However, check with your doctor to be sure these medications are safe for you.
When should I see a doctor for back pain?
Your ability to function is one of the best indicators of whether your back pain requires a doctor visit. If you’re experiencing severe pain or are unable to perform your normal daily activities, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible. You also should give your doctor a call if you have already tried home treatment and your back pain hasn’t improved within a few days or hasn’t completely disappeared within 2-4 weeks.
If you’re experiencing back pain along with numbness, tingling, or shooting/radiating pain in your arms, hands, legs, or feet, you may have an irritated or compressed nerve root. These symptoms warrant a call to your doctor because they can be caused by a herniated or bulging disc, an inflamed disc, or spinal stenosis, a condition marked by narrowing in the spinal canal. Chronic back pain also can point to osteoarthritis, which causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints and is common in people older than age 50.
Back pain also can be related to infection, tumors or severe injury. You should contact your doctor right away if you’re experiencing back pain along with any “red flags,” including:
- A history of cancer or recent infection
- Signs of infection, such as fever, chills or sweats
- Trauma, such as a serious fall or car accident
- Unexplained fatigue or rapid weight loss
Patients who seek early treatment for back pain generally have better outcomes than patients who wait.
If you have any doubts about whether your back pain requires medical attention, your best bet is to have your doctor check it out. If your doctor identifies a serious condition, he or she can help you to feel better and prevent permanent damage or future problems. But if it turns out to be nothing more than a minor strain, your doctor will be happy to provide you with home treatment tips and reassurance.
Updated January 14, 2022