When to See a Doctor for Severe Back Pain
Severe back pain can stop you in your tracks, greatly reducing your quality of life. Severe back pain makes it difficult to accomplish even the simplest tasks, like putting on your shoes, driving to work, or enjoying activities with your family. When your back is in agony, it’s all you can think about. And it’s all your family hears about.
When back pain is severe enough, you can also find yourself racking up many hours at the emergency room.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, back pain is the second most common reason that adults see a doctor. Millions of Americans suffer from back pain, and the lower back is the top spot for the most common location of severe and life-limiting pain. This is because the lower back bears most of the body’s weight. When your weight compresses the cartilage cushion (called the disc) between your vertebrae, that spongy cushion between your bones can degenerate, which can cause the discs to compress or slide out of place. When that happens, it can be excruciating to bend, sit, stand, walk, twist, or lift even the lightest of objects.
If you are experiencing back pain upon any movement, or having repeated flare ups of pain that goes away on its own after a few days of self-care, it’s time to see a doctor. The same goes for middle back and neck pain that flares up, causing sharp pains and limiting your ability to move, sleep, or conduct your daily tasks or social or fitness activities.
Here are some of the conditions that may be causing your severe back and/or neck pain:
• Disc degeneration. As mentioned, age, weight, smoking as well as general wear and tear can contribute to degeneration of the cushions between the bones of your spine. If that cushion is worn down enough, this can be a source of severe back pain.
• Sciatica. It’s something you may have heard your parents complain about over the years, and now you may be experiencing the telltale severe pain in your lower back and buttocks that radiates down into your thigh, calves or feet. Sciatica is most commonly caused when a nerve becomes pinched in your lower back. These spinal nerves join together when they enter your leg to form the sciatic nerve. If a nerve in your back becomes irritated by a herniated disc, that can produce a shooting pain, numbness, or weakness down the leg along the sciatic nerve. Sciatic pain can begin as just a tingling sensation before growing into severe pain which can worsen after periods of sitting or standing.
• Lumbar spinal stenosis. When you have spinal degeneration, the canal through which your spinal nerves travel can narrow. As you age, your spinal discs can also dry out and shrink and bulge. The facet joints in the back of the spine can also deteriorate and enlarge. The combination of disc degeneration and facet joint problems can lead to narrowing of the spinal canal. The resultant pressure on the nerves can cause severe back pain with pain, heaviness and weakness that radiates down into the legs. The back and leg symptoms tend to worsen with walking and are frequently improved with sitting or leaning forward onto a shopping cart. There are many treatment options available for spinal stenosis. Before giving up activities that you enjoy, see a spine specialist and find out what options may be available to help.
• Osteoarthritis of the spine. While some people may tell you that nothing can be done about osteoarthritis or that it’s just an unavoidable part of aging, there are treatments available that can help reduce your symptoms. Osteoarthritis can cause not just severe back pain, but also agonizing muscle spasms, and can pinch nerves which causes pain, numbness, and weakness that can radiate down into your legs.
• Herniated disc. Commonly known as a ‘slipped disc,’ this painful condition occurs when a damaged or bulging disc pinches a nerve in your back. Discs are shaped like Jelly donuts. When the disc tears and the jelly squeezes out of place, it can put severe pressure on a nerve. This will commonly cause sciatica which is a shooting pain down into your leg.
When severe back pain happens to you, it’s your doctor who can best assess your situation. By performing a careful history and physical exam and then obtaining the proper testing, your doctor can determine which of the above painful conditions might be causing your symptoms. You’ll then join forces with your spinal surgeon to come up with a plan that to reduce your pain and discomfort, get you mobile again, and manage back pain flare-ups. If initial conservative steps like physical therapy and medications don’t bring you enough relief, or if your tests reveal a more serious spinal disorder, you and your doctor can discuss whether spinal surgery is a good option to deliver the back pain relief you desire so strongly.
In short, it’s time to see a doctor when your back pain becomes severe, when back pain happens repeatedly, or when you experience tingling, numbness or weakness in your legs. Ultimately, it time to see the doctor when you are simply tired of being limited by back pain.