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Back pain: Do you need to see the doctor?
Back pain assessment
It's true that most back pain goes away on its own with time. But it's OK to contact your doctor if you have concerns or questions. And in some cases, you should definitely consult a physician.
To get an idea of whether your symptoms warrant a visit to the doctor, answer the following questions.
Note: This assessment is not intended to be a substitute for a visit with your healthcare provider.
Has the pain lasted more than six weeks?
If you answered "yes." While a sore back may go away on its own after several days or weeks, it's a good idea to check in with your doctor if it's lasted this long. It's possible there's a more serious problem that can be treated. Your doctor also may be able to provide advice on pain relief, exercise and other measures to help in your recovery.
Do you have pain in your leg along with back pain?
If you answered "yes." This may be a sign that something is pressing on a nerve running from your back to your leg. The cause may be a herniated disk. Or the pain could be caused by spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the canal the spinal cord occupies. This narrowing can be the result of bone spurs in the back, thickening of ligaments or a bulging disk.
Do you have tingling, numbness or weakness in an arm or a leg?
If you answered "yes." This may be a sign of a herniated disk in your back or neck.
It could also be a sign of spinal stenosis—narrowing of the spinal canal—especially if it is worse when standing or walking.
Numbness, pain or weakness in an arm or a leg may also be a sign of a stroke or heart attack, especially if it came on suddenly or occurs with other symptoms—like back, chest or jaw pain. Call 911 immediately if you might be having a stroke or heart attack.
Did the pain start after a recent injury?
If you answered "yes." This could signal damage, including a fracture, in your spine. This is especially a risk if you have weakened bones due to osteoporosis.
Are you having problems controlling your bowel or bladder?
If you answered "yes." This could be due to a herniated disk or other spinal problem. If you also have weakness in one or both legs, you should contact your doctor or get to an emergency room right away.
Does pain become worse when you rest, or does it wake you at night?
If you answered "yes." If you also have a fever, this could be a sign of an infection.
If you answered "no" to all six questions, you may not need to see a doctor for your back pain at this point. However, if your symptoms persist or worsen, a visit to the doctor may be in order.
If you answered "yes" to one or more questions, you have symptoms that warrant a visit to a doctor.
Tips for treating back pain
Many people with low-back pain feel better after a week or two. And more than 90% feel better within eight weeks, reports the American College of Rheumatology (ACR).
You should contact your doctor if you have any of the signs mentioned in this assessment or if you have any other concerns.
Over-the-counter pain medicines such as acetaminophen and aspirin may help you feel better. Applying cold packs and heat also can help.
You also should keep bed rest to a minimum and try to proceed with your usual activities, advises the ACR.
Sources: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; American College of Rheumatology; American Heart Association; North American Spine Society
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "Herniated Disk in the Lower Back." https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/herniated-disk-in-the-lower-back/.
- American College of Rheumatology. "Spinal Stenosis." https://rheumatology.org/patients/spinal-stenosis.
- American Heart Association. "Warning Signs of a Heart Attack." https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack.
- North American Spine Society. "Acute Low Back Pain." https://www.spine.org/KnowYourBack/Conditions/Low-Back-Pain/Acute-Low-Back-Pain.
- North American Spine Society. "Herniated Lumbar Disc." https://www.spine.org/KnowYourBack/Conditions/Degenerative-Conditions/Herniated-Lumbar-Disc#:~:text=Conditions-,Herniated%20Lumbar%20Disc,-Patient%20Education%20Committee.
The information found in the Health Library is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor does it represent the views or position of WHMC. Readers should always consult with their healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including for specific medical needs.