Back pain that results from a car accident, fall from a ladder, sports injury, or other major trauma is an obvious cause for concern. Most people will seek immediate medical care in those situations. But it’s not always obvious when back pain is a serious matter, so the following criteria should be taken into account when deciding if you should seek urgent help or just try to ride out the pain until you can see your primary care physician.
Back pain, especially if it comes on suddenly, accompanied by any combination of the following red flags should be considered serious and you should seek medical attention right away.
1. Weakness in the Limbs
If you have back pain accompanied by symptoms such as an imbalance while walking, clumsiness of the hands, or weakness of the arms and hands, seek urgent consultation with a doctor.
If you have osteoporosis (or another condition that weakens the bones) and experience sudden back pain as a result of twisting, reaching, coughing, sneezing, or another everyday occurrence, get immediate medical attention.
3. Night Pain
Experiencing back pain at night or at rest — especially if it is accompanied by weight loss or another symptom — can be a sign of a serious condition such as a spinal infection. Or cancer. Seek urgent consultation with a doctor.
4. Recent Surgery
A recent back surgery, epidural injection, or transplant may increase the risk of a spinal infection. If severe back pain occurs and you just had one of these procedures, seek urgent consultation with a doctor.
5. History of Cancer
Some types of cancers are especially likely to put pressure on the spine. Back pain may also indicate the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Or if you’ve had cancer in the past, back pain may indicate a recurrence.
6. Unexplained Fever or Recent Illness
Back pain accompanied by a fever may indicate a spinal infection, such as meningitis or an epidural abscess. A recent illness with low back pain may also be the sign of a spinal infection. It is imperative to get an accurate diagnosis as quickly as you can.
7. Unexplained Weight Loss
Rapid, unintentional weight loss has many causes and should always be cause for concern. You should never hesitate to consult a doctor. If accompanied by back pain, the cause may be a spinal infection.
8. Steroid or IV Drug Use
A compromised immune system and contaminated needles ... do we really need to explain that these aren’t a good combination? Among other things, steroids and intravenous drug use put you at higher risk for spinal infection. Seek urgent consultation with a doctor if you develop back pain.
9. Saddle Numbness
Back pain accompanied by numbness in your groin, buttocks, or inner thigh may be the result of a serious nerve problem in your lumbar spine. The numbness can become permanent without quick treatment, so you should seek immediate medical attention.
10. Bladder or Bowel Incontinence
Other indications of a serious nerve problem in your lumbar spine include frequent urination, urinary retention, urinary incontinence, and an inability to control bowel movements. If you experience these symptoms along with back pain, you should seek immediate medical attention.