How do you know when that achy pain in your back is more than you can handle alone? Experts agree -- if your back pain is in conjunction with any of the following symptoms, skip the at-home remedies for in-office help.
There are several red flags that doctors look for when evaluating low back pain.
The purpose of these warning signs is to detect fractures, tumors, or infections of the spine. If you have any of these red flags along with back pain, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Sure, your back just could be achy and tight from the flu, but an unresponsive fever accompanied by back pain also could be a sign of a serious infection. “It’s indicative of something more systemic,” says orthopaedic surgeon Richard Guyer, MD, founder of the Texas Back Institute and Associate Clinical Professor of Orthopaedics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.
What to expect: Your primary care doctor can rule out an infection. If it is an infection, antibiotics may be prescribed. If your doctor rules out an infection, a couple days of rest can be helpful. Sometimes back pain can be a result or a secondary consequence of an infection causing the fever. But once you start to feel better, doctors typically recommend slowly resuming your daily activity. Resting more than a day or two can actually make your back pain worse.
If you've had a serious trauma -- such as a fall from a height or a car accident -- or if you've had a relatively minor trauma and you're over 50, your doctor will want to take a serious look at your back pain. Even falling down a few steps when you're older can cause a fracture.
What to expect: Your doctor will probably take an X-ray to look for fractures. If no fractures are found, you may manage your pain with medication and later your recovery with physical therapy.
Numbness or Tingling
You might think that you can stop numbness or prickly tingling with over-the-counter medication, but this is usually an indication of nerve irritation or damage and is clinically more significant than your typical pain, says New York City chiropractor Todd Sinett, author of The Truth About Back Pain. If that pins-and-needles feeling won’t go away, you may be experiencing one of several conditions -- such as a herniated disc, spinal stenosis -- that can cause nerve pressure. “If left untreated, prolonged nerve irritation and damage can lead to permanent disabilities,” says Sinett.
What to expect: It would be smart to first see your primary care doctor for an evaluation. Treatment will vary depending on the diagnosis. Additional testing to image the spine and check nerve conduction may be ordered.