Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is backache?

Backache is one of the most common medical complaints, particularly among adults. Backache usually refers to pain in your muscles, intervertebral joints, spinal nerves, or sometimes bone-on-bone pain. The type of pain you are having can help your physician pinpoint the cause.

Backache can be categorized as acute or chronic. Acute pain is often temporary and can improve on its own, frequently without treatment or with the assistance of a mild pain relieving medication. Acute backache usually lasts anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks. Chronic back pain is more long-term and can extend beyond several months. The pain can often be progressive, getting worse over time.

Once your medical practitioner determines the cause of the pain, there are usually appropriate treatments either to relieve the symptoms or to eliminate the pain source altogether. With appropriate treatment, your backache can often be resolved or managed with strategies that enable you to resume most of your normal activities.

Most sources of backache are not life threatening.Some spinal column disorders can put pressure on the nerves of the spinal cord. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms of nerve compression, such as loss of sensation in the limbs or shoulders; a complete loss of balance; loss of bladder or bowel control, especially in combination with weakness in your legs; or loss of sensation in a limb. Also seek immediate care for serious symptoms, such as abnormal sensations or sudden weakness or numbness on one side of your body, paralysis, and changes in level of consciousness.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for a spinal condition but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

What other symptoms might occur with backache?

Backache may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the back may also involve other body systems.

Musculoskeletal symptoms that may occur along with backache

Backache may accompany other symptoms affecting the musculoskeletal system including:

  • Buttock or hip pain
  • Curvature of the spine
  • “Foot drop” (feeling of the foot slapping the ground; caused by leg weakness)
  • Heel pain
  • Muscle spasm
  • Muscle weakness
  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Shoulder pain
  • Stiffness in the spine
  • Swelling in the shoulder, knee, or ankle joints

Neurologic symptoms that may occur along with backache

Backache may accompany symptoms affecting the nervous system including:

  • Balance problems
  • Headache, particularly in the back of the head
  • Nerve problems that cause pain, numbness or tingling in an arm, buttock, shoulder or leg
  • Paresthesias (stinging, burning, tingling, crawling sensations)

Other symptoms that may occur along with backache

Backache may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, backache may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have backache along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Abnormal sensations, numbness, or weakness on one side of the body
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Loss of sensation in a limb or limbs
  • Muscle weakness in the arms or legs (persistent)
  • Neck pain
  • Weakness (loss of strength)

What causes backache?

Major causes of backache include mechanical and other injuries, congenital and acquired disorders, infectious disorders, or tumors.

Mechanical causes of backache

Backache may be caused by mechanical changes or injury. Mechanical changes are changes in the way you move your spine and are caused by weight changes, obstructions, or other physical changes that are either impeding movement or causing pain. Mechanical or traumatic causes of backache include:

  • Bone spurs
  • Exercise or sports injury
  • Fractured vertebra
  • Herniated disc
  • Intervertebral disc degeneration (loss of cushioning effect of the discs between vertebrae)
  • Ligament sprains (tears)
  • Muscle spasm or tension, including stress-induced tension
  • Obesity
  • Poor physical condition or failure to practice ergonomic principles to protect the musculoskeletal frame in the workplace
  • Pregnancy

Congenital and acquired disorder causes of backache

Backache may be caused by inflammatory, congenital, or degenerative disorders including:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis (inflammation of joints between the vertebrae of the spine)
  • Discitis (infection of an intervertebral disc)
  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Osteomyelitis (infection of bone)
  • Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
  • Scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine)
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal, creating pressure on the spinal cord or nerves)
  • Spondylosis (spinal degeneration)

Serious or life-threatening causes of backache

In some cases, backache may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of backache

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your backache including:

  • How long have you had your backache? Have you noticed any change or progression since it first began?
  • Where exactly do you feel pain? Does anything in particular seem to bring it on?
  • Do you experience any tingling, numbness, or loss of sensation in any part of your body?
  • Have you experienced episodes of weakness in any of your muscles?
  • How is your balance? Any trouble with coordination?
  • Have you had any episodes of loss of bowel or bladder control?
  • Have you had a stiff neck or stiffness in your spine?
  • Have you had any hip or buttock pain, or a feeling of pain shooting down the back of your leg?

What are the potential complications of backache?

Because backache can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Chronic pain or discomfort
  • Eventual reduced flexibility and mobility
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Paralysis
  • Permanent loss of sensation
  • Permanent nerve damage
  • Permanent or chronic pain
  • Permanent physical disability
  • Progressive weakness
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
Was this helpful?
  1. NINDS back pain information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
  2. Back pain. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
  3. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009
  4. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 14
View All Back Pain Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.