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Aching Back? When To See a Doctor

May 26, 2022

There are seemingly endless ways for you to hurt your back. It could be from sports, lifting heavy objects, an accidental fall or just age-related degeneration of the spine. These injuries are among the most common reasons for missing work and a leading cause of disability in this country.

Often, you can deal with these back aches, pains, and strains with basic home treatments. But when your symptoms refuse to fade away, it’s time to seek help from your doctor.

What Your Symptoms Mean

Symptoms can vary widely, based on the severity and location of the injury. Most back pain will gradually improve within a few weeks with nothing more than home care. That can include over-the-counter pain medications and applying cold or heat to the affected area.

One thing to avoid: extended bed rest. That was once considered a key part of treating back pain but is no longer recommended. Studies have increasingly shown that your back will respond better if you stay active, with short walks and simple exercises. Stick as close as possible to your typical routine.

In most instances, your aching back is not likely to be an emergency. But there are times when symptoms warrant seeking immediate medical attention – either with your own doctor or the emergency room. Those include:

  • Sudden spike in pain
  • Weakness or inability to move one of your legs
  • Loss of bladder function
  • High fever
  • Severe stomach pain
  • Your pain is related to a fall or severe blow to your back

You should also contact your doctor if your pain:

  • Shows no sign of improvement within a few weeks
  • Causes a burning or stabbing sensation in your legs
  • Creates pain that radiates down one or both legs
  • Causes weakness or tingling in your legs
  • Is accompanied by unexpected weight loss

Dangers of Self Diagnosis

You may prefer to avoid going to the doctor, but there are times when symptoms could suggest something else that’s masquerading as a muscle-related back injury.

For example, Lower back pain could be referred pain from  kidney and digestive issues, including pancreatitis and gallstones. In women, uterine fibroids and endometriosis can cause pain that radiates into the back. It’s also possible that sudden, severe back pain could be related to a ruptured aneurysm. With older men, there is the occasional case in which mild back pain is related to metastatic prostate cancer.

What To Expect When You See the Doctor

The most common source of back pain is some sort of muscle-related injury. With that in mind, it’s unlikely that your doctor will order imaging in the early stages of your diagnosis. Generally, it takes six to eight weeks for a muscle-related injury to show significant signs of improvement or resolution.

So don’t be surprised during that initial visit if your doctor recommends a rehab plan, which could include medication to relieve the inflammation and physical therapy exercises focused on improving your flexibility and core strength. You are unlikely to get a prescription for advanced imaging unless you are exhibiting symptoms suggesting a more severe problem.

If your symptoms don’t improve during your rehabilitation period, other diagnostic options will be explored. They may include:

  • Spinal X-ray: Uses radiation to produce images of your bones.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Uses a magnet and radio waves to create images of your bones, muscles, tendons and other soft tissues.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: This imaging device uses X-rays and computer technology to create 3D images of bones and soft tissues.
  • Electromyography (EMG): This tests nerves and muscles to look for pinched nerves and other damage that can cause tingling or numbness in your legs.
  • Bone scan: In rare cases, these may be used to look for bone tumors or compression fractures cause by osteoporosis.
  • Blood test: This can look for infections or other conditions that could be causing the pain.

If you have nagging back pain that isn’t going away, it’s best to see your doctor.

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