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When Should I Call My Doctor About Back Pain?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on September 16, 2021

Back pain is, well, a pain.

For the 80% of adults who experience it at some point in their lives, the go-to treatment is often over-the-counter pain relievers, an ice pack, and rest.

But while most back pain does go away on its own, there are times when toughing it out at home isn’t a good idea. If your pain falls into any of the categories below, make an appointment with your doctor:

  • Severe, chronic pain: If your back pain lasts more than 3 months, it’s what doctors call chronic. Make an appointment so your doctor can check for injuries or illnesses that could be to blame.
  • Radiating pain: Low back strains and sprains, sciatica, and a herniated disk can cause back pain to “radiate” -- move to other parts of your body. If it’s causing aching, numbness or tingling in your butt, genitals, legs, feet, arms or hands, see your doctor. They’ll be able to find out why and give you something to ease your symptoms.
  • Limited range of motion: Do you have trouble bending over to tie your shoes or reaching overhead? Back pain plus limited range of motion could be a sign of a chronic condition like osteoarthritis.

Call your doctor right away if you have a history of cancer or immune system problems, or if you have:

  • An injury or accident: Sports injuries, car accidents, or falls that trigger back pain need medical attention right away. Even if the incident seems minor, it could have caused a bigger problem like a fracture or herniated disk. Let your doctor examine you to rule out any potential after-effects.
  • A fever: When you have a high temperature and back pain, take it seriously. It could be the sign of a spinal infection, which needs urgent medical attention.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control: If you have back pain and suddenly can’t control your bladder or bowels, call your doctor right away. This could be a sign of several things, like spinal tumors or cauda equina syndrome, a rare but serious condition caused by a severe compression of the nerve roots in the spine. It could also signal lumbar spinal stenosis, which causes compression of the nerves in the lower back.
  • New or worsening motor weakness, sometimes with numbness or tingling: This could be a sign of spinal cord compression.
  • Unexplained weight loss: If your back hurts and you’re losing weight -- 10 pounds or more -- but don’t know why, see your doctor right away. That could be a sign of a more serious medical problem.
  • Pain that wakes you up in the middle of the night: It can be the sign of disk degeneration, a sprain, or something more serious, like a tumor.

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Low Back Pain Fact Sheet.”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Back Pain.”

American Association of Neurological Surgeons: “Herniated Disc,” Low Back Strain and Sprain,” “Osteoarthritis,” “Spinal Infections,” “Spinal Tumors,” “Cauda Equina Syndrome,” “Lumbar Spinal Stenosis.”

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: “What Is Back Pain?”

North American Spine Society: “Chronic Low Back Pain.”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Sciatica.”

American Cancer Society: “Signs and Symptoms of Cancer: What Are the Signs and Symptoms?”

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

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