When to Worry About Your Back Pain

  • Fifty percent of American adults experience back pain every year.
  • Most cases of back pain are due to sports injury or bad posture.
  • Some cases of back pain, especially without obvious trauma, may indicate a serious medical condition.

Most cases of back pain are not caused by serious conditions. However, back pain can also indicate an underlying issue that needs emergency attention, says Dr. Neel Anand, an orthopaedic surgery professor and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center, Los Angeles. He warns that back pain that doesn’t go away or intensifies, or is excruciating, needs to be dealt with seriously.

Head to the ER immediately when you experience the following along with your back pain:

1. Recent back injury

Dr. Anand explains that a direct back injury, albeit minor, can injure the spine. Back pain may also result from “pathological fracture” where a tumor has weakened the spine, leading to a fracture during a minor event, says Dr. Anand. He adds that this type of back pain can sometimes help people find out that they have cancer.

2. Weight loss

Rapid, unexplained weight loss accompanied by back pain could indicate a tumor in the spine, says medical oncologist Dr. Neelima Denduluri, Georgetown University Medical Center’s clinical assistant professor, and US Oncology Network Breast Committee’s associate chair. She says cancerous tumors pressing on the spine can affect your stomach and make you lose your appetite.

3. Uncontrolled bladder

Back pain with bladder or bowel incontinence, or weakness or numbness in the hips, legs, and pelvis, and hips, could indicate an infection, multiple sclerosis, nerve damage, and some types of cancer, says Los Angeles-based urologist Dr. S. Adam Ramin, Urology Cancer Specialists’ medical director, City of Hope National Medical Center’s assistant professor of surgery.

4. Pain that wakes you up at night

Back pain that won’t let you sleep could be a sign of several conditions and diseases, especially if accompanied by appetite loss, fever, or weakness or numbness.

5. Stomach pain

Stomach pain accompanied by back pain may mean that your back pain originates from the abdomen, says Dr. Anand. It may be caused by internal bleeding, cancer, or other abdominal issues, says the American Academy of Family Physicians. Acute lower back pain not caused by an obvious trauma or movement can be a symptom of abdominal aortic aneurysm or an aorta enlargement in the abdomen.

6. Pain while peeing

According to Dr. Ramin, intense back pain can be a sign of a kidney stone trying to pass through your ureter. If your back hurts when you urinate, or there’s blood in your urine, seek medical help immediately.

7. Osteoporosis

If you were diagnosed with osteoporosis and get sudden back pain, it could indicate a fractured vertebra, caused by a fall, heavy lifting, or a violent cough. You may not feel the break, but it can cause debilitating pain over time.

8. Numbness

If your back pain comes with numbness, especially in the legs, it may be a sign of lumbar nerve injury or spinal damage, says Dr. Anand. When left untreated, it can lead to paralysis.

9. A lump in your breast or armpit

Dr. Denduluri says back pain can be a symptom of breast cancer, too. Breast cancer can affect other organs before it’s detected, causing symptoms in body parts other than the breasts.

Source: The Healthy