Back Pain? When to See a Doctor

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on November 12, 2020
3 min read

Almost everyone has back pain from time to time. Lots of things can cause it, from a too-hard workout to a kidney stone.

Some of the more common reasons include:

Most back pain goes away by itself. But if it's intense or doesn't get any better after 3 days, it's time to see your doctor.

If you have certain other symptoms, it could be a sign of a type of inflammatory arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis (AS). The first sign of AS is usually back and neck pain, plus stiffness in your lower back, hips, neck, pelvis, and other areas. It often starts when you're in your late teens or your 20s.

AS can cause:

  • Pain in specific joints. You might feel it in the joint between your spine and pelvis, the back of your heel, between your ribs, in your breastbone, or in your shoulders.
  • Morning pain. You hurt more when you get up or after you haven’t moved for a while. The pain might even wake you from sleep.
  • Eye issues, including pain, blurry vision, and sensitivity to light
  • Fatigue

If you have these symptoms, especially if you're a teen or young adult, see your doctor.

Your doctor will look at your back and ask you questions about how intense your pain is. They may also look at how easy it is for you to sit, stand, and move around. This will help them figure out where your pain is coming from.

To find the cause, your doctor might recommend other tests such as:

CT or MRI scans. These check for issues with your bones, disks, tissue, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, nerves, or ligaments.

X-rays. This test can help find arthritis or broken bones.

Electromyography (EMG). This test measures your muscles' response to electrical impulses from your nerves. It can show whether you have pinched or compressed nerves along your spine.

Blood tests. Your doctor will look for infections that could cause back pain.

Bone scans. Doctors rarely use these for back pain, but they may help to find tumors or breaks caused by osteoporosis.

After your doctor figures out what the issue is, they’ll discuss treatment options with you. For minor cases of back pain, they may suggest over-the-counter pain relievers like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or a heating pad.

For more serious conditions, your doctor may give you stronger medication like narcotics, antidepressants, or muscle relaxers.

You may need to see a specialist to understand your condition better. Your doctor may suggest you make an appointment with:

  • An orthopedist, a doctor who specializes in bones, muscles, and joints
  • A rheumatologist, who specializes in arthritis and similar conditions

Before your doctor's appointment, make a list of questions. You might ask your doctor:

  • What are the possible causes of my back pain?
  • What are all my treatment options?
  • Do these treatments have any risks?
  • Can I do anything to help my pain or keep it from getting worse?
  • Could stress be contributing to my pain?
  • How serious could my pain get?

Also, track your condition before you speak with your doctor. This can help them understand your situation and diagnose you accurately.

Keep note of all your symptoms, how long they last, when they usually begin, and where the pain is on your body. Write down other issues that could be related, such as fatigue or problems elsewhere on your body.