Back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor or miss work and a leading cause of disability worldwide. Most people have back pain at least once.
Fortunately, you can take measures to prevent or relieve most back pain episodes. If prevention fails, simple home treatment and proper body mechanics often will heal your back within a few weeks and keep it functional for the long haul. Surgery is rarely needed to treat back pain.
Signs and symptoms of back pain may include:
- Muscle ache
- Shooting or stabbing pain
- Pain that radiates down your leg
- Limited flexibility or range of motion of the back
When to see a doctor
Most back pain gradually improves with home treatment and self-care, usually within two weeks. If not, see your doctor.
In rare cases, back pain can signal a serious medical problem. Seek immediate care if your back pain:
- Causes new bowel or bladder problems
- Is accompanied by fever
- Follows a fall, blow to your back or other injury
Contact a doctor if your back pain:
- Is severe and doesn’t improve with rest
- Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain extends below the knee
- Causes weakness, numbness or tingling in one or both legs
- Is accompanied by unexplained weight loss
Also, see your doctor if you start having back pain for the first time after age 50, or if you have a history of cancer, osteoporosis, steroid use, or drug or alcohol abuse.
- Age. Back pain is more common as you get older, starting around age 30 or 40.
- Lack of exercise. Weak, unused muscles in your back might lead to back pain.
- Excess weight. Carrying too much weight puts extra stress on your back.
- Diseases. Some types of arthritis and cancer can contribute to back pain.
- Improper lifting. Using your back instead of your legs can lead to back pain.
- Psychological conditions. People prone to depression and anxiety appear to have a greater risk of back pain.
- Smoking. This can keep your body from delivering enough nutrients to the disks in your back.
Tests and Diagnostics
- X-ray. These images show the alignment of your bones and whether you have arthritis or broken bones. These images alone won’t show problems with your spinal cord, muscles, nerves or disks.
- MRI or CT scans. These scans can generate images that may reveal herniated disks or problems with bones, muscles, tissue, tendons, nerves, ligaments and blood vessels.
- Blood tests. These can help determine whether you have an infection or other condition that might be causing your pain.
- Bone scan. In rare cases, your doctor may use a bone scan to look for bone tumors or compression fractures caused by osteoporosis.
- Nerve studies (electromyography, or EMG). This test measures the electrical impulses produced by the nerves and the responses of your muscles. This test can confirm nerve compression caused by herniated disks or narrowing of your spinal canal (spinal stenosis).