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Loss of Bowel or Bladder Function

Back pain teamed with a loss of bowel or bladder control can be a telltale sign of a rare, but serious condition called cauda equina syndrome, in which the nerve roots in the lower end of the spinal cord have experienced some sort of compression and become paralyzed. This can happen as a result of a herniated disk, fracture, tumor, spinal stenosis, or trauma to the spine. Symptoms can develop over time and also include numbness and weakness of the legs. Cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention. 

What to expect: In order to relieve the pressure that is damaging nerves and preserve nerve function, "Your doctor will perform a procedure called a surgical decompression," says Guyer.


Medical history of cancer, suppressed immune system, osteoporosis, or chronic steroid use

A history of cancer would make your doctor want to rule out cancer spread as a possible cause for your back pain. Immune suppression could lead your doctor to suspect an infection as the cause of your back pain. A history of osteoporosis or chronic steroid use could lead your doctor to suspect a fracture as the cause of your pain.

What to expect: Your primary care doctor may order tests such as blood work or an MRI to check for a tumor or infection or X-rays to rule out fractures. You may take antibiotics for an infection. Fractures can be treated with medication, physical therapy, and sometimes surgery. Pain management for cancer that has spread to the spine may include medications and radiation therapy.  


Foot Drop

If, while walking, your toes drag along the ground or you have to consciously lift your foot higher to compensate for the dragging, you may be experiencing foot drop, a condition that can be accompanied by back pain, says Sinett. Foot drop is usually a symptom of a greater issue like a nerve problem (the nerve that tells muscles to lift the foot may be damaged), muscle problem, or a brain problem. 

What to expect: The first thing your doctor must do is figure out the underlying cause of the foot drop. For example, if your doctor suspects a herniated disc, she may suggest treatments such as physical therapy and steroid injections.   


Night Pain

All is fine during the day, but as soon as your head hits the pillow your back starts to hurt, making sleep near impossible. Sound like you? “Pain that wakes you up in the middle of the night can be the sign of disc degeneration or a sprain, or something more serious like cancer or a tumor,” says Sinett. Bottom line: Night time back pain shouldn’t be ignored. Make a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible.

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