Spine Symptoms

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What are the signs of spine problems?

Spine symptoms are among the most common complaints of adult patients in the United States, especially with the onset of middle and advancing age. Most spine complaints have to do with pain that ranges from dull, constant aching to sudden shooting or sharp pains. Stiffness in any part of the spine is another common complaint. Pain and stiffness may worsen with inactivity, while some forms of pain increase with activity, depending on the disorder or injury.

Other symptoms are related more to misalignment than to discomfort, as in a forward bending or side-to-side misalignment associated with some congenital or degenerative disorders. Spinal symptoms may come from disorders of the vertebrae, the discs between vertebrae, or may originate from compression of the nerves in or exiting the spinal cord. Spinal disorders may be genetic, degenerative (due to natural wear and tear), or caused by other primary bone disorders or, in rare cases, tumors.

The most common spine symptoms include back and neck pain with or without stiffness; hip pain or sciatica; muscle spasms or weakness; and shoulder, knee or ankle pain and swelling.

Most spine symptoms are not life threatening. However, 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; high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit); or loss of bladder or bowel control, especially in combination with weakness in your legs. Also seek immediate care if you have pronounced weakness in the arms or legs, abnormal sensations in the limbs or shoulders, impaired balance and coordination, or weakness (loss of strength). Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for a spinal condition but mild symptoms recur or are persistent. If your spine symptoms are persistent or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with spine symptoms?

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

Neurologic symptoms that may occur along with spine symptoms

Spine symptoms may accompany other symptoms affecting the nervous system including:

  • Headache, particularly in the back of the head
  • Pain, numbness or tingling in an arm, buttock, shoulder or leg

Other symptoms that may occur along with spine symptoms

Spine symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

    Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

    In some cases, spine symptoms may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have spine symptoms 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)

    What causes spine symptoms?

    Major causes of spine symptoms include mechanical and other injuries, congenital and acquired disorders, infections, or tumors.

    Mechanical causes of spine symptoms

    Spine symptoms 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 spine symptoms include:

    • Bone spurs

    • 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

    • Sports or exercise injury

    Congenital and acquired disorder causes of spine symptoms

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

    Serious or life-threatening causes of spine symptoms

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

    Questions for diagnosing the cause of spine symptoms

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

    • How long have you had these symptoms? Have you noticed any change or progression since they first began?

    • Where exactly do you feel these symptoms? Does anything in particular seem to bring them 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?

    • Are you experiencing any episodes of overall weakness or fatigue?

    • Are you having any difficulty concentrating?

    • 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 spine symptoms?

    Because spine symptoms 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 or permanent pain

    • Difficulty breathing

    • Eventual reduced flexibility and mobility

    • Loss of bladder or bowel control

    • Permanent loss of sensation

    • Progressive weakness

    • Spread of cancer

    • Spread of infection

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    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 2
    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.
    1. NINDS back pain information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/backpain/backpain.htm
    2. Back pain. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Back_Pain/default.asp
    3. Skinner HB, McMahon PJ. Current Diagnosis & Treatment on Orthopedics, 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014