8 Signs That You Should Call a Doctor for Your Back Pain

If you are like the majority of people, you have experienced back pain in your life. Nearly 80 percent of Americans experience a moderate to severe case of back pain in their lifetime. Although some forms of back pain will resolve on their own, it is very important to know when to seek help from a medical professional. Physical therapy for back pain is an effective treatment for any issue with your muscles, bones, and ligaments. However, there are some key signs that may require more urgent medical care.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is discomfort that has lasted for months or even years. Chronic lower back pain causes tend to be from injury, after surgery, or joint degeneration. Chronic pain lingers on because the body continues to send pain signals after the area has healed. Physical therapy exercises for low back pain can help ease even years of chronic back pain, especially when recent advances in pain neuroscience education (PNE) are incorporated into treatment.  PNE helps retrain the brain’s response to pain signals.  Working with a physical therapist will allow you to improve the mobility and strength around your spine, improve your pain levels with daily activities that bother your back, and develop strategies for managing flare-ups.

Pain Extends To Other Body Parts

Due to all of the nerves that exist in the low back, the spine can refer pain to the legs and the side of the back. This is common with sciatica or lumbar radiculopathy, where pinched nerves cause pain along the rest of the nerve. Nerves become pinched due to disc herniations and narrowing of the space within the spinal column.  This occurs as part of the every day wear and tear of normal aging process. 

Another way that pain spreads is from another body part to the low back. Examples of this are an abdominal aortic aneurysm, kidney stones, colon cancer, and pancreatitis. These conditions all originate from organs rather than muscles, bones, and ligaments and typically have other symptoms associated rather than just pain. For example, pain from the low back typically happens with movement. Pain from an organ occurs without a pattern and can be accompanied by things like urinary changes and appetite changes.  

Pain that has no pattern with movement and pain that extends from the back to the legs are good reasons to contact your doctor for an evaluation today.

You Have Numbness, Tingling, or Weakness

You should never ignore symptoms of numbness, tingling, or weakness, whether they occur on one side or both sides. These symptoms also occur with some cases of sciatica when nerve compression lingers on. Beyond that, numbness in the feet can point to polyneuropathy or poor circulation. A lesion within the spinal cord such as a tumor can cause weakness on one leg or the other. If you have numbness in the area where you’d sit on a bicycle seat accompanied by sharp sudden low back pain, you should seek immediate care for a potentially serious condition.

Call your doctor today if you are experiencing any of these symptoms as none of them are normal.

After An Accident

Accidents, such as car crashes or sports injuries, may produce back pain right away. However, pain may appear a few days later if your muscles had to brace themselves for expected impact. You should not ignore back pain after an accident because you may have an injury. There are many tools that your physician and physical therapist can help you work through to improve your pain and protect you from it returning!

Unexpected Weight Loss 

Low back pain combined with poor appetite and pain that wakes you up at night can point to serious conditions. These symptoms may point to problems with your digestive organs such as irritable bowel syndrome, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), or even cancer.

If you experience unintentional weight loss whether from loss of appetite or a normal appetite and low back pain, make a prompt appointment with your doctor to figure out why you have these symptoms. 


A fever and low back pain separately may not be so concerning. However, if you have both at the same time for a couple of days or more you should not ignore this. A fever can be caused by an infection and when this is paired with low back pain it is possible to have a kidney or bone infection. These are serious conditions that require a course of antibiotics or more aggressive treatments.

Problems With Bowels & Urination

If you have problems using the bathroom or not being able to hold it and have had persistent back pain, you may have a digestive or urinary organ problem or a syndrome called cauda equina syndrome. Although rare, cauda equina syndrome occurs when the very low nerves that control the bowel and bladder become compressed. Symptoms are low back pain, saddle numbness (the area you would sit on a bicycle seat), changes in bowel and bladder, and if not treated immediately, can lead to permanent weakness or paralysis of the legs.

Worsening Pain at Certain Times

Pain at night that wakes you up or when you are lying down and does not change when you adjust position, could point to serious conditions behind your back pain. This pain could be a sign of infection, a fracture, and even cancer. If you have pain specifically after eating, you may have an issue with a digestive organ that is referring pain to your back. Any pain that is sudden and sharp beyond a gradual ache that occurs in a pattern not caused by movement is concerning for a serious cause of low back pain.

All of these eight signs point to back pain beyond general soreness and overuse. Physical therapy exercises for low back pain can be very effective and provide tremendous relief. It is important to communicate any of these symptoms to your healthcare professionals, so you receive the best treatment for the cause of your back pain. A physical therapist that specializes in spine problems will also know if your condition needs an MD and help make the appropriate referral. Your physician or your physical therapist will guide you on steps to take after screening for any conditions that are beyond traditional causes of back pain, like overuse and work injuries.

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