How Do I Know if My Back Pain Is Serious?
In the US alone, one in four workers experiences back pain. That translates to about 40 million employees who deal with backaches every workday. If your back has been sore for a few days now, you may be wondering, "how do I know if my back pain is serious?"
If your back pain is a result of direct trauma, you should consider it a serious symptom. You may also have a more severe problem if the pain comes with other symptoms, such as fevers and bloody urine. The same goes if you feel sharp, stabbing pains rather than a dull ache.
How Do I Know if My Back Pain Is Serious?
Direct trauma to the back can cause severe pain due to torn tissues, fractures, or pinched nerves. Back pain with recurring fevers or bloody excrement can be a sign of a more serious condition. Backaches with unexplained weight loss or muscle weakness are also alarming symptoms.
How Could Lower Back Pain Be Serious?
For starters, treatments for low back pain (together with neck pain) cost US patients at least $6.7 billion a year. That figure comes from the fact that Americans spent $134 billion to treat neck and low back pain from 1996 to 2016. What's more, that amount is much more than what diabetes or heart disease treatments cost.
Worse, those figures don't even include the indirect costs associated with back pain. An example is the estimated $7.4 billion that employers lose as a result of having workers with back pain. Productivity losses and missed workdays account for much of these monetary losses.
On the other hand, workers who suffer from back pain end up missing over 264 million workdays every year. That translates to at least two lost workdays per employee each year.
However, back pain isn't just about healthcare costs, lost income, and unrealized profits. It can also be a serious condition that can render a person debilitated and immobile. Furthermore, severe back pain can indicate severe underlying disorders and illnesses.
What Are the Signs Back Pain Is Serious?
Intense back pain is one of the most common indicators of a serious spinal condition. Chronic back pain, which affects as many as 16 million US adults, is another. Debilitating pain that makes it hard to move can also mean something more insidious.
With that said, any kind of physical injury to the back should be enough reason to treat back pain as a serious sign. This is especially true if you've been in a motor vehicle accident. Such incidents can cause moderate to severe back pain that lasts for half a year or even longer.
Trauma to the back caused by sports or activities also has the potential to cause serious back pain. If you fall on your back, for instance, you can strain or sprain the soft tissues in your back. Just like severe shoulder or ankle sprains and strains, back injuries can also be as grievous.
What Symptoms Associated With Back Pain Should Prompt Me to See a Doctor?
Aside from the pain itself, back pain can also be serious if it comes with seemingly unrelated signs. In some cases, these symptoms can arise from infections or nerve problems. Below we'll take a closer look at some of these indications.
Recurring or Persistent Fevers
If you have localized back pain plus a fever that doesn't go away, you may have a spinal infection. The most common type, known as vertebral osteomyelitis, affects 26,000 to 65,400 people in the US each year. Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli are the main bacteria causing this infection.
Aside from severe back pain and fevers, spinal infections may also cause weight loss. You may find it hard or painful to urinate or you may have problems controlling your pee. Muscle spasms, as well as arm or leg weakness, are also signs of vertebral osteomyelitis.
If you experience any of these symptoms, be sure to visit your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor would need to run tests to either confirm or rule out an infection.
If you do have one, your physician will likely prescribe antibiotics. If you don't, you may have to take a couple of days of rest while monitoring for other signs.
Pins-and-Needles (Prickly Tingling Sensation)
Aside from infections, a pins-and-needles sensation can also occur due to irritated nerves. Nerve irritation, in turn, can occur due to poor posture or back injuries. Problems like a herniated disk or spinal stenosis can also irritate the nerves.
Low back pain and sciatica also often go hand in hand, and you may also feel prickly tingling sensations. Sciatica can result from disk herniation or spinal stenosis.
Either way, all these nerve maladies warrant a trip to the doctor as soon as possible. For instance, untreated herniated disk or spinal stenosis can lead to sciatica. Sciatica, in turn, can result in long-term and even widespread pain.
If urination or defecation troubles occur with back pain, take a trip to the doctor, too. Spinal infections aside, these excretory issues can also occur due to compressed nerves. There's a small chance, but you may have a condition called "cauda equina syndrome."
Cauda equina syndrome is rare, affecting 1 in 33,000 to 100,000 people. It occurs when nerves in the lower spine become compressed and paralyzed. Fractures, trauma, herniated disks, or spinal stenosis can all cause this rare condition.
Unexplained or Sudden Weight Loss
Back pain accompanied by fevers and weight loss can signal endocarditis. Like the cauda equina syndrome, it's also rare, affecting three to 10 in every 100,000 people. While it's uncommon, it can be life-threatening, which is why you shouldn’t ignore your symptoms.
After all, endocarditis causes the "endocardium," or inner lining of the heart, to swell. This occurs when bacteria or other germs infect the heart through the bloodstream. The infection can cause high fevers and poor appetite, resulting in weight loss.
Back pain that occurs along with weak legs can signal lumbar spinal canal stenosis. It happens when the tiny space in the lower spine shrinks even more. This can then pinch the nerves connected to the legs, thereby weakening the leg muscles.
Falls, which lead to 2.8 million injuries needing emergency care each year, can cause this problem. Sports injuries, normal wear and tear, as well as arthritis are also culprits. Poor posture can also contribute to lumbar spinal canal stenosis.
Excessive exercise with a strained back can further narrow the lumbar spinal canal. The same can happen if you do any other vigorous activity while your injured back is still healing.
Back Pain That Worsens Even After Enough Rest
Nine in 10 cases of low back pain are temporary. This means that they go away on their own (without surgery) after about six weeks.
If you've strained or injured your back, your doctor will likely tell you to rest for no more than two to three days. At this point, you should feel less pain and be able to move more. You may need less than six weeks to fully recover if you also use an orthopedic lumbar support belt.
However, if your pain doesn't improve after a few days, that's a sign that you should visit your doctor. Progressing pain, despite adequate rest, can signal a more severe condition. Your injured back may have developed spurs that may now be irritating your nerves or tissues.
What Can Cause Back Pain for Days?
Severe physical trauma to the back can result in fractures or herniated disks. If left untreated, it can cause chronic back pain and more debilitating conditions.
Medical conditions, like the infections discussed above, can also cause persistent back pain. More than that, infections can lead to sepsis if not treated early. Tumors that affect the spinal cord can also result in long-lasting back pain.
That's why you should see a doctor right away if you experience any of these conditions' warning signs. In doing so, your physician can rule out more severe illnesses or disorders.
What you do following a back injury can also make or break your back. Here are some of the most common mistakes that can cause back pain to last for many days.
Not Resting Enough
While moving is vital when you strain or sprain your back, you need a lot of rest first. Most doctors recommend one to two days of rest for minor back sprains and strains. If you have a more severe injury, your physician may recommend physical rehabilitation.
What's important to keep your injured back as immobile as possible during the first one to two days. A lumbar support belt can help stabilize and immobilize your back. In doing so, it can protect your injured tissues from sustaining even more injuries.
Too Much Rest After an Injury
If you over-rest your injured back, your muscles may lose their tone and conditioning. You're also at risk of feeling stiff, which can happen if you don't use your muscles. This stiffness can then tempt you to avoid moving, which encourages even more pain.
That's why you should follow your doctor's directions when it comes to rest. You don't have to go back to your normal activities right after the second day. However, you should gradually move so that you can get your blood flowing properly again.
Encouraging circulation helps nourish your famished, injured back tissues. You can also use a medical back brace to support your back as you start moving again. It also acts as a compression device, so can it can help boost circulation, too.
Using Heat Immediately After an Injury
Researchers say that both heat and cold therapies can help reduce back pain. However, this doesn't mean you should use both of them right after you sustain a back injury. Ice therapy works best for fresh injuries, as it can help minimize swelling and pain.
By contrast, most health experts advise against the use of heat following an injury. That's because heat can increase circulation, which can then cause more inflammation. So, your back injury may swell longer if you use heat right away.
You can use heat once there's a considerable reduction in the swelling. For minor back strains or sprains, this usually means waiting for two to three days. After this, though, heat treatment can already help ease soreness and stiffness.
Heat pads are a great complementary treatment device for acute and chronic back pain. Massages, which can promote increased temperature, can also be good for boosting circulation. Hot showers and hot tubs may also be helpful for your sore back.
What Does Back Pain Mean If It Feels More Like Sharp, Stabbing Pain?
You may be experiencing muscle spasms, or you may also have a herniated disk. Compression fractures and infections can also cause sharp, stabbing, or shooting pains.
In many cases, this type of back pain results from overuse injuries. Too much sports or exercise, for instance, can result in muscle spasms.
However, a single episode of a back strain or sprain can also cause stabbing or shooting pains. In this case, the tissue injury may have triggered a disk to herniate. Such injuries can happen if you lift a heavy object incorrectly.
Know When Back Pain Is Serious to Avoid Breaking Your Back Further
There you have it, all the possible answers to your question, "how do I know if my back pain is serious?" Remember: sharp pain, or back pain with fevers and muscle weakness, can mean serious issues. If you experience these signs, or if your pain doesn't improve in a few days, be sure to see your doctor right away.
In case your physician recommends the use of a back brace, then know that we here at PowerRebound can help. We offer medical back braces and supports that can help straighten out your spine.