Is My Back Pain a Sign of Something More Serious

Back pain is more common than most people think.  According to the American Chiropractic Association, back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. It’s also the second most common reason for visits to the family doctor.  In most cases, the causes of back pain are easily determined — everything from injuries to slipped discs to sleeping on an old mattress can cause back pain.  When should you make an appointment with your doctor and when can back pain be a sign of something more serious?

Common Causes of Back Pain

As we’ve stated, back pain is the second most common cause for trips to the doctor. What are the most common causes of back pain?

  • Muscle strain or injury — lifting improperly, carrying too much weight or simply experiencing an injury can all cause back pain.
  • Your shoes — if your shoes don’t fit right or you’re wearing the wrong kind of shoes, you might experience back pain.
  • Your weight — individuals who are overweight or obese will be more likely to experience back pain.
  • Your posture — Slouching or maintaining poor posture can damage your back.
  • Poor fitting bras — for women, poor fitting or unsupportive bras can cause back and shoulder pain.
  • Your mattress — an old mattress or one that is too firm or too soft can contribute to back pain and poor sleep.
  • A heavy purse or backpack.

If you’re experiencing back pain, you’re not alone — upwards of 80% of adults report experiencing back pain severe enough to schedule a trip to their doctor.

Two doctors discussing a back x-ray.

When Should You Head to The Doctor?

When does back pain merit a trip to the doctor?

This will depend entirely on you and your pain tolerance, but in general you should make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • You notice redness or swelling in your back. This could be indicative of an infection in the spine or surrounding area that needs to be treated by a medical professional.
  • Your back pain is accompanied by unintended weight loss — you start losing weight without any changes to your diet or activity.
  • Your back pain spreads down one or both of your legs, especially if it continues past your knees.
  • Your back pain also seems to cause numbness or weakness in one or both legs.
  • Your back pain is constant and doesn’t respond to any over the counter treatments.

If you experience any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor.  If you experience back pain along with fever, bladder control problems, or after a severe injury or car crash, seek emergency medical care.

When Is It A Sign of Something More Serious?

When can your back pain actually be an indicator of something more serious than just a few overused muscles or lousy mattresses?

  • You experience pain that gets worse when you walk up hill. Back pain that gets worse when you walk down hill is usually a sign of a spine related condition known as spinal stenosis. When you’re experiencing pain walking uphill, it can be a sign of peripheral arterial disease. The pain is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries that carry oxygenated blood to the limbs.
  • Is your back pain alleviated by leaning over in the ‘grocery cart position’ — basically, the position that you’d be in leaning over the handle of a grocery cart? If not, that can be another indicator of peripheral arterial disease.
  • Pain that is improved by exercise but gets worse at night can be a signifier of neuropathy which needs to be treated by a professional.
  • Joint stiffness in the back and limbs in the morning that lasts longer than half an hour, especially in younger adults, can be indicative of arthritis. This pain often first manifests in the back.
  • Back pain that is accompanied by weight loss or unexplained fatigue can be a sign of malignancies that need to be addressed as soon as possible. This is a rare occurrence but they symptoms should not be ignored if they do occur.

What Should I Do?

What should you do if you’re expediting back pain that you suspect may have an underlying cause? We’ve only got one piece of advice that we can offer here:

Make an appointment with your doctor.

A website like ours can only offer so much information. If you’re worried about your health, or afraid that your back pain could actually mean something more, the best person to talk to is your family doctor.  He or she can prescribe the tests needed to determine the cause of your back pain and prescribe the best course of treatment.

A doctor sitting at this desk.

Common Back Pain Treatments

Your specific treatment for back pain will depend on your particular diagnosis but in general, back pain is treated using:

  • Medication — Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, both over the counter and prescription, may be used to reduce inflammation and reduce pain.
  • Steroid Injections — under the supervision of a doctor, corticosteroids can be injected directly into the back to help reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy — exercise and stretches, both at home and in the doctor’s office, can help to improve range of motion and reduce pain.
  • Surgery — in severe cases, where other treatments do not work, and surgery is sometimes an option. This would be something to discuss with your doctor.

Back pain is one of the most common causes of pain the world. If you’re experiencing pain in your back, it might be in your best interest to make an appointment with your doctor.  Know that you’re not alone and you’ve got plenty of options to help alleviate that pain.

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