Back pain can be mild and temporary, acute and severe, or chronic and nagging, but it’s never welcome. And trying to discern whether your back pain warrants a trip to the doctor’s office can be tricky.
That’s why Dr. Matthew DeFroda, our board-certified and highly experienced chiropractic physician at reNu Medical & Injury Center in Newark, Delaware, has compiled these guidelines to help you understand what might be causing your lower back pain and when it’s time to come see him or a medical professional for expert care and lasting relief.
Checklist: When to see a doctor for low back pain
Almost no one escapes lower back pain. If you’re one of the 80% of Americans who suffer from this common complaint, learn how to tell the difference between take-care-of-it-at-home pain and get-yourself-to-a-doctor pain.
Here are a few signs that you should seek help right away:
- Severe pain
- No relief from over-the-counter pain-relievers
- No relief from rest and ice and heat therapy
- Persistent and unrelenting pain
- Difficulty walking
- Pain when moving your legs
- Loss of sensation in your legs
- Inability to stand up straight
- Weakness or tingly sensation in your legs
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
If you have any of these symptoms, make an appointment to have Dr. DeFroda evaluate your condition. If you’ve lost coordination or use of your bladder and bowels, seek immediate help.
It’s just a backache — why do I need a doctor?
Sure, backaches are common, and they may resolve on their own without any medical intervention. If you’ve sprained the ligaments or strained the muscles, rest, ice, heat, and ibuprofen may keep you comfortable as the injury heals over the next few weeks.
Tight muscles and muscle spasms typically respond well to massage, gentle stretches, and light exercise.
But if you don’t know what caused your low back pain or it’s causing other problems, you might be dealing with something more serious that will only get worse if you don’t get treatment.
Here are some of the conditions that cause low back pain:
If you’ve been in an auto or sports accident or you’ve fallen, you may have injured your vertebrae or discs. Fractures heal, but it’s best to make sure they heal in proper alignment, and surgery may be necessary.
If an impact injury compresses a disc and causes the insides to bulge beyond the boundary of your spinal column (herniated disc), it can press on a nerve and cause pain, numbness, and tingling.
But you don’t have to have an accident to have disc trouble. Degenerative disc disease can wear down your discs and allow your vertebrae to rub against one another, causing pain, inflammation, and sometimes bone spurs.
When your sciatic nerve — which runs from your lower back, through your buttocks, and down each leg — gets pinched or irritated, you can feel pain, tingling, and numbness anywhere along the path of the nerve.
This is called sciatica, and is a symptom of various conditions, such as a herniated disc, bone spurs, tumors, a misaligned spine, or anything that causes pressure.
Depending on the cause of your sciatica, we may need to restore your spinal alignment through chiropractic therapies, including the Thompson drop or diversified techniques, to relieve pressure from the nerve.
Your back pain may stem from an infection within your spine. Although this isn’t terribly common, it can occur if a pathogen, such as a bacterium, virus, or fungus, enters your body.
You’re at risk for spinal infections if you have diabetes, certain cancers, or HIV, or if you’ve had spinal surgery. Symptoms of a spinal infections include:
- Fever and chills
- Severe back pain
- Numb legs
- Muscle spasms
You’ll likely need a course of antibiotics or other medications to help you fight the infection.
Back pain that has nothing to do with your back
It’s possible to feel pain in your lower back even if your back is healthy. For instance, pregnancy can cause an achy back as your body shifts alignment drastically, and muscles, ligaments, and tendons stretch to their max.
Obviously, pregnancy is temporary, and your back pain should disappear once the baby arrives.
But there are a few other conditions that can cause pain in your lower back that may need immediate attention:
These conditions can only be diagnosed by a medical professional.