Almost everyone encounters back pain at some point in their lives. However, only a fraction of these will require serious medical intervention. That is why it is important to recognize the key distinctions between a mild muscle strain and an issue like a vertebral fracture or spinal stenosis. In general, your back pain isn’t something you should ignore. Seek a medical opinion to rule out more serious conditions and minimize your recovery period.
You shouldn’t expect bad news when you consult with your doctor about a back condition. From 60 to 80 percent of the general public will develop at least mild back pain at some point in their lives. Of people who experience back pain, 90 percent will see those symptoms disappear within six weeks. Only about 7 percent of lower back pain sufferers will have symptoms lasting three months or longer.
An Introduction to Your Back
You have lived with it all of your life, but you have probably never considered how complicated and important your back is until you encounter a problem. You should understand the key components and functions of your back in order to know how problems may arise.
The most important function of the spine is structural support. The 33 bony vertebrae are stacked in a column from the pelvis to the skull. There are joints between these vertebrae as well as with other bones like the ribs. There are five regions of the spine:
- Cervical—the neck region has 7 vertebrae
- Thoracic—the chest has 12 vertebrae
- Lumbar—the lower back has 5 vertebrae
- Sacrum—this conjoined region has 5 vertebrae amalgamated into one bone
- Coccyx—the tailbone has 4 fused vertebrae
Between the vertebrae are connective tissue that cushion the bones and facilitate movement. One of the most important of these is the intervertebral disc composing of a tough collagen exterior and a soft gel nucleus.
In addition to supporting the head and upper body, your spine also protects the spinal cord. The spinal cord is the primary neural pathway from the brain to the nerves found throughout your body. Nerves must pass through tiny passages in the vertebrae to connect with the spinal cord.
Finally, your spine is an anchor point for many of the muscles in your trunk. Tendons attach the ends of various muscle groups, stabilizing your spine.
Serious Warning Signs
With so many components, the potential for something going wrong is quite high. That is, at least in part, why so many people have back issues. It also contributes to why so many people never know what is the real cause of their back pain.
There are some red flags that should alert you that your pain condition may not be a typical issue that you can remedy at home. If you encounter any of the following, see your doctor as soon as possible.
- Fever—If your back pain is accompanied by a fever, you may be suffering from an infection. Although it isn’t uncommon to suffer from back pain and fever from ailments like the cold or flu, sometimes this combination of symptoms indicates more serious health conditions like pyelonephritis (kidney infection) or osteomyelitis (spinal column infection).
- Injury—Being involved in an accident like a fall from a significant height or a vehicle collision is almost always cause to visit your doctor. If you are 50 years of age or older, you should see a doctor even if there is only minor trauma to your back. Your physician can perform x-rays to determine if there are fractures as well as a thorough medical evaluation of other parts of your back.
- Loss of feeling—Numbness or a tingling sensation are symptoms of nerve damage which require immediate medical attention. These symptoms may be caused by a bulging disc pressing on a nerve which may or may not require medical treatment to remedy. In some cases, if the condition is not treated in a timely manner, then permanent disability could follow.
- Prior history of cancer—If you have had cancer before, even minor discomfort in your back should send you to the doctor. Your doctor will test you for an infection if you have been on immune suppression therapy and may also perform an MRI to determine if a tumor or fracture is present. If a tumor is present, then your physician may recommend chemotherapy or radiation therapy to shrink it.
- Loss of bowel or bladder control—Many people may experience leakage from time to time. If you experience loss of bladder or bowel control along with back pain, it can mean that you have cauda equina syndrome. This is a serious condition in which the lower end of the spinal cord has become compressed, resulting in partial paralysis. These symptoms may also occur if there is a tumor, fracture, spinal stenosis or herniated disc.
- Recurring or ongoing pain—If your back pain is still present after six weeks, then it is urgent that you seek medical care. Many back conditions may cause ongoing pain that continues this long, so a medical evaluation should help identify the root cause. Once properly diagnosed, you can discuss the most promising treatment options for you.
- Nocturnal back pain—Back pain that intensifies at night is justification to visit your doctor. This may be symptomatic of a muscle sprain, degenerative disc, or tumor. Your doctor can perform the appropriate tests to diagnose the cause of your night pain and recommend therapies to accelerate the recovery process as well as enjoy better sleep.
- Foot drop—If you have difficulty walking because your toes drag, this may be a sign of nerve damage in the spine. It can also be caused by muscle problems or a brain issue, but your physician should be able to determine what is causing the foot drop.
- Rapid weight loss—A fast, significant drop in body weight that accompanies back pain is a serious cause for concern. Unexplained weight loss is often a warning sign of a cancerous growth. If it is localized to the spine, it should be treated immediately.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees. The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship. Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.