When to See a Doctor for Back Pain

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Man with back pain

Back pain is one of the most common medical conditions; more than eight in 10 of us will experience it during our lifetime. There are many reasons why your back may hurt—from a pulled muscle to more serious back and spine conditions. The type of discomfort ranges from a dull backache to sharp pain. The most common type of back pain is acute—which means it goes away within weeks. Chronic back pain lasts longer than three months. Knowing when to see a doctor for back pain is half the battle when it comes to finding relief. Many people continue to function with mild backaches and find relief with at-home care measures. But, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of a more serious back problem that requires a professional medical diagnosis and treatment.

Common Causes of Back Pain

Two of the most common reasons for back pain are muscle strains or ligament sprains. Obesity and bad posture can put strain on your back and make it hurt. Arthritis and other changes in your spine as you get older can cause back pain. More serious causes of the condition include a ruptured disc or fractured vertebrae. Possible causes of back pain include:

  • Herniated disc, when the soft center of spinal disc “slips” out of place

  • Osteoporosis, a disease that thins and weakens bones including the vertebrae

  • Osteomyelitis, a bone infection

  • Sciatica, or pain along the path of the sciatic nerve

  • Scoliosis, a type of curvature of the spine

  • Stenosis, a narrowing of spaces in the spinal column or nerve passages

  • Ankylosing spondylitis, arthritis in the spine

  • Sacroiliitis, inflammation of the joint between the pelvis and lower spine

Back Pain Treatment at Home

The good news is that, given time, most back pain gets better on its own. Over-the-counter pain medication may help ease your symptoms. You can also try applying hot or cold packs to reduce your back pain. Both heat and cold stimulate the nerves (which can ease pain); so use whichever you prefer and see what works best for you. Doctors more commonly recommend heat to relax tight muscles, but you may find ice reduces swelling. Use your heat or cold pack for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Don’t apply the heat or cold treatment directly to skin. Rest and avoiding activities that especially put strain on your back may also help while you heal. However, doctors don’t generally recommend bed rest when your back hurts.

When to See a Doctor for Back Pain

If your pain is severe or constant, lasts more than two weeks, keeps you from participating in your usual activities, or interrupts your sleep, see a doctor. You should also seek medical care for back pain if you have:

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Constant or intense pain, especially at night or when you lie down

  • Pain that spreads down your leg, especially below your knee

  • Weakness, numbness or tingling in your legs

  • Swelling or redness on your back

  • Cancer, infection or fracture that may affect your spine

Call 911 for emergency medical care if your back pain is the result of a car crash, a bad fall, or a severe sports injury, or if it is causing bowel or bladder problems.

Who to See for Back Pain

If your back pain is from a strain, sprain, or other mild injury, but it isn’t going away, call your primary care doctor. If the pain is severe, ongoing, or you have numbness or tingling in your arms or legs, you can call a healthcare professional like a chiropractor, physiatrist or orthopedist. You may want to check with your insurance provider first to make sure you understand your coverage for providers who are not medical doctors (medical doctors have MD or DO after their name; chiropractors have DC).

Back pain can disrupt our lives and even become debilitating, but in most cases, it goes away on its own. If your back pain is increasing or not improving, or you have any of the symptoms described above, consult a doctor or licensed healthcare professional who can advise you on treatment options.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Mar 8
  1. Back Pain. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/back-pain/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050878
  2. When Back Pain Means More Than a Back Problem. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/07/when-back-pain-means-more-than-a-back-problem/
  3. When Can a Doctor Help Your Back Pain. Duke Health. https://www.dukehealth.org/blog/when-can-doctor-help-your-back-pain
  4. Back Pain. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/back-pain
  5. Hot or Cold for Back Pain? Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/hot-or-cold-for-back-pain
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