When to See a Doctor for Back Pain
When someone experiences back pain, whether it is chronic back pain or a severe pain that comes on suddenly, they may have a moment when they try to decide if it is time to call a doctor. Though this can be scary for some, especially if that means seeing a “spinal surgeon.” Even thinking about surgeons and surgery can cause anxiety!
Fear is a normal response to any health issue, but if a person lets it hold them back from being evaluated by an appropriate physician, they could actually increase their odds of needing back surgery. At the very least, that person will risk missing out on important life events if they are hobbled by back pain.
Often, back pain severity will tell a person when it is time to call a doctor for relief. There are other situations when a person should consider seeing a spinal physician, such as when back pain in combination with the following symptoms:
Fever. A fever unexplained by illness, when paired with back pain, could be a sign of an infection within the bones/disks of the spine. While this is relatively uncommon, it is important to discover it earlier rather than later to treat it appropriately.
Trauma. If a person is experiencing back pain after a car accident or fall, call a doctor to be seen in the office to get an in-depth assessment of whether that person has a spinal injury. Continuing normal activities without having a full evaluation and appropriate treatment, could risk further damage or a slower recovery.
Numbness or weakness. Numbness or weakness anywhere in the body can be a sign of nerve irritation or damage and can be a sign of more significant irritation of the nerve than having just pain alone. There are conditions within the spine-namely, disc herniations or spinal stenosis-that can cause numbness or weakness in a single area of the body. If that numbness or weakness does not go away in a short period of time, it is best to see a specialist for further evaluation to lessen the risk of long lasting nerve damage.
Unexplained Weight Loss: Anytime a person loses weight unexpectedly and dramatically, it could be a sign of a serious medical issue. When paired with back pain, a doctor will want to rule out infection or tumors as a possible cause for back pain and weight loss. A doctor most likely order bloodwork and/or imaging to check for these issues.
Prolonged Back Pain Lasting More Than 6 Weeks: Medical experts say that 90% of back pain cases improve within six weeks, so if your pain is unchanged or is getting worse, it is time to call your doctor to determine any underlying causes.
Loss of Bowel or Bladder Control: Back pain paired with a loss of bowel or bladder function can be a sign of a rare but serious condition called cauda equina syndrome, in which the nerve roots in the lower portion of the spine have become compressed and no longer work properly. This can occur as a result of a herniated disk, fracture, or tumor of the spine. This is one of the most urgent reasons to seek medical attention for your back pain; call your physician’s office immediately or seek medical attention in an emergency facility if you experience a sudden change of bowel/bladder function in combination with back pain.
Foot drop: If you are having trouble walking because your toes drag while you are taking normal steps or if you have to consciously lift your feet higher to compensate for the dragging of your toes, you may be experiencing a condition called foot drop. If you don’t have a known reason for it (ie have had it since young or immediately after a leg surgery), this may indicate a compressed nerve within the spine that is no longer functioning properly.
Back pain at night. If your back pain wakes you up in the middle of the night, this can be a sign of a problem beyond just normal back pain. There are many possible causes, but you should see a provider who can determine if further testing needs to be done to determine a possible cause.
Do not avoid seeking medical care when your back pain is paired with any of these symptoms, as getting a proper diagnosis is the first step towards recovery of your normal function and decreasing the risk of further damage or injury. If you have back pain without these symptoms, the right time to seek medical care is when your symptoms begin to affect your daily life! You may find that there is a simple solution to get you back on your feet.