If you suffer from lower back pain, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Lower back pain can affect up to 80% of the population at some point in their lives. In fact, the American Chiropractic Association estimates that number to be around 31 million! The good news is that most back pain episodes are usually self-diagnosable and self-treatable. Most back pain resolves on its own within about 4–6 weeks, with or without medical treatment.
Sometimes, however, low back pain doesn’t go away on its own and that can lead to some scary thoughts. Some of the top questions that people tend to ask regarding persistent low back pain are: ‘What does it mean if my back pain doesn’t go away on its own?’. ‘How do I know if it is something more serious?’. ‘When should I see a doctor?’
What Are The Risks?
While there are cases of low back pain that are due to something more serious and scary, the good news is that those cases are actually very rare. After the age of 55, around 1 case in 20 is due to a fracture, and only 1 in 100 may be due to something more ominous. We have probably all heard stories of people whose low back pain turned out to be a tumor or some form of cancer, but fortunately the chances of that actually happening are very low.
When Should I See A Doctor For My Low Back Pain?
While most lower back pain will fix itself, or turn out to be due to something relatively harmless, there are some red flags that you should be aware of. Experts agree that if you are experiencing low back pain along with any of these red flags at the same time, it is probably a good idea to head to your local doctor’s office and get it checked out. Better safe than sorry. Early intervention is always best.
We have put together a list of the most common red flags that could indicate if something more serious is happening with your body. If you are experiencing any of these red flags please see your doctor as soon as possible.
Low Back Pain Red Flags
An unresponsive fever accompanied by back pain could be a sign of a serious infection. If you have a fever along with a tender, warm area on your back, it could be due to an infection of the spine. Other infections, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, bladder infections, or kidney infections, may also cause back pain.
Numbness, prickly feelings, or tingling sensations are usually an indication of nerve irritation or damage and is clinically more significant than your typical pain. Injuring a nerve in your low back can cause numbness or tingling down the back of your leg. Pressure on the nerves of the spine, such as from a herniated disc, can also cause numbness and tingling. Weakness, numbness, or tingling in your arms, hands, in your groin, or going down your leg, can also be indications of severe low back pain.
Severe back injuries may result from car crashes, falls from significant heights, direct blows to the back (or the top of the head) or a high-energy fall onto the buttocks. Any major trauma should be checked out by your healthcare professional. If you are over 55 years of age and experience even a minor trauma, such as tripping or a small fall, you should still visit your doctor for a thorough check up. Your doctor will want to examine you for fractures and make sure that there aren’t any serious issues.
4. Kidney Stones
Kidney stones, or stones in the ureter (the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder), can cause pain in the lower back. This pain may also radiate to the groin and is often accompanied by painful or frequent urination.
5. Loss of Bowel Or Bladder Function
Cauda equina syndrome is a rare, but serious condition, in which the nerve roots in the lower end of the spinal cord have experienced some sort of compression and become paralyzed. Fractures, tumors, spinal stenosis, herniated discs, or even trauma to the spine, can cause this. Cauda Equina Syndrome is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
6. Medical History of Cancer, Suppressed Immune System
Any family history of cancer should always be ruled out when experiencing persistent low back pain. Although it is rare, persistent low back pain can be a sign of a tumor. Your primary care doctor will probably want to do blood tests and an MRI to rule out the possibility of your pain being linked to any type of cancer.
7. Foot Drop
Foot Drop occurs when your toes drag along the ground while you are walking. If you find yourself having to lift your foot higher than usual to compensate for this dragging motion, then you may be experiencing foot drop. Foot drop occurs when the nerves in the lower back and/or leg are pinched, damaged, or degenerated. This could be due to either a muscle problem, or a brain problem. Irritation or compression of spinal nerve roots in the lumbar and/or sacral spine may also cause foot drop, due to radiculopathy.
8. Night Pain
Night time back pain is a special type of low back pain that can be an indicator of a serious problem with your spine. Nocturnal back pain can be an indicator of spinal tumors, or it can be a symptom of a spinal bone infection such as ankylosing spondylitis or osteomyelitis. Nocturnal back pain should be taken seriously and a visit to your doctor should be scheduled as soon as possible.
9. Unexpected Weight loss
When you increase your exercise or go on a diet, you are expecting to lose some weight. Unexpected weight loss is when there is weight loss with no other explanation. Cancer can often be the cause of unexplained weight loss in individuals, so any sudden weight loss, along with low back pain should be evaluated by your healthcare professional.
10. Prolonged Pain (Lasting more than 6 weeks)
90% of people with low back pain recover within 6–8 weeks. If your lower back pain has lasted longer than 6 weeks, it might be time to get a professional opinion and rule out anything more serious.
People often think that the worse the pain, the more serious the condition. Fortunately, (or unfortunately?) with lower back pain, this is not the case. Back pain is definitely something to be taken seriously and living with daily pain is often debilitating for many sufferers. Red flags are there to help us understand circumstances where things might have taken a turn towards something more serious and possibly life-threatening.
The good news is that only about 1% of low back pain is ever truly serious, and even then it is generally very treatable. If you have any of the symptoms that we discussed above, along with low back pain, then please call your doctor right away. Your primary care provider knows you better than anyone else and should be your first contact for persistent low back pain.
If you found this article helpful and would like to see more information on living with lower back pain, follow us on social media.