What are some common back pain red flags?

Back pain is considered to be one of the most common issues that affect the general population. In the majority of cases, people may experience short-term pain that goes away by itself and does not cause any problems.

One such example is that of acute low back pain (pain which affects the lumbar spine). Although this type of pain may cause discomfort, it has a rather high chance of resolving on its own, without causing any other issues.

Back pain may be specific (have a known cause, which is most likely due to a spinal pathology or a medical condition), or non-specific (meaning it doesn’t have a clear, identifiable cause).

It may occur by itself, or it may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as stiffness, reduced range of movement, as well as tense muscles. These are normal and common symptoms to experience along with back pain and may go away on their own with time.

However, there are other symptoms that should not be ignored, as they may represent a red flag that the spinal problem(s) may be caused by something more serious, such as cauda equina syndrome, a spinal infection, a spinal fracture, or even cancer.

Back pain red flags to look out for

Red flags signs are symptoms that you should look out for include:

  • A neurologic deficit or neurological symptoms, such as weakness, numbness and tingling in the back, neck, legs, arms, feet or hands – these could indicate the possibility of nerve root compression or even spinal cord compression – as well as
  • Loss of control of one’s bladder and/or bowels, which may be due to cauda equina syndrome
  • Leg pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever, chills, and a headache that accompany the pain may indicate the possibility of a spinal epidural abscess (spinal infection) having occurred
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • A new, visible deformity of the spine

Risk Factors

  • Previous or current injuries to the back. Whether it was a minor trauma or a major one that had an impact upon the spine, there is a chance that it might have injured the structure of the spine, leading to possible complications
  • Age – people of advanced age are at an increased risk to suffer from various back pain issues that range in severity
  • Obesity places additional stress on the spine and leads to back issues

Diagnosis and Treatment

Because back pain tends to go away with time, it may not always be necessary to seek a diagnosis, especially if the pain is mild and temporary. However, if the pain persists, or if it gets worse, one should seek medical attention from their primary care provider, and if there is a cause for concern, a spinal specialist should then analyse the person’s condition.

The first step in diagnosing any back issue is to have the medical professional carry out a physical examination to analyse the painful region. Depending on the situation, the patient may be asked to have additional tests to either confirm or rule out more complex/severe causes of the symptoms.

If the pain is severe and the symptoms are caused by a medical condition that is concerning, the healthcare provider will advise what the best course of treatment is depending on individual factors that affect the patient.

For back pain that is temporary, surgery is not a suggested course of action, but it might be an option for those with severe, long-lasting back pain, or pain which is caused by a severe issue, such as cancer, cauda equina syndrome, or a spinal fracture.

If you experience any of the symptoms that are considered red flags, seek immediate medical attention.

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