Back pain ranks as one of the more common ailments from which people in the U.S. suffer. Anywhere from 60-80% of U.S. adults experience back pain, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). Figuring out when to see a doctor for back pain can be a difficult question, as waiting too long can increase pain later on and may risk serious complications.
How many people see a doctor for back pain?
At any given moment, that leaves up to 31 million people in the U.S. with low back pain, according to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA). Each year, about 50% of working adults in the U.S. report back pain. It’s one of the leading causes for missing work. And, unfortunately, many of these people aren’t sure when to see a doctor for back pain. This can lead to even more days off.
The condition disables more individuals younger than 45 than any other cause, and forces 13 million people to visit a back pain doctor annually, according to UMMC. All the doctors’ visits and treatment plans make for an expensive public health issue. Nationally, people spend about $50 billion annually to find relief.
The following video gives a brief overview of the science of back pain.
What causes back pain?
Although back pain is distressingly common, some causes are preventable.
The risk for experiencing back pain increases as you age, especially if you’re overweight or don’t exercise. Having a job that requires frequent lifting or spinal twisting can also exacerbate your risk for lower back pain.
You can mitigate many of the risk factors by being proactive. Quitting smoking—another way to increase the likelihood of lower back pain—exercising, and keeping a normal body weight can all help keep your body and back healthy. Sitting and standing with good posture, and bending your knees to lift objects instead of bending at the waist also work to keep your spine healthy and reduce the risk of low back pain.
The effect of stress on pain
Just as lifestyle factors can influence back pain, so too can stress.
A team at Carnegie Mellon University has found long-term psychological stress may be linked to increased inflammation and swelling. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows chronic stress decreases the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. Many diseases are linked to inflammation, including chronic pain, stroke, and heart disease.
The study found those under serious long-term stress had less ability to control the hormone cortisol. Previous research has found those with chronic stress suffer from more common colds, leading researchers to question if the immune system was hindered by increased cortisol production and if there is a link between stress and inflammation.
The study group included 276 health adults. The group completed an intensive stress interview and was then exposed to a virus causing the common cold. After a five-day quarantine, they were monitored to see if the virus caused an infection. In Cohen’s first study, 276 healthy adults completed an intensive stress interview and were then exposed to a virus that causes the common cold and monitored in quarantine for five days for signs of infection and illness. Those under long-term stress were more likely to have fallen ill with the virus.
It was found that experiencing a prolonged stressful event was associated with the inability of immune cells to respond to hormonal signals that normally regulate inflammation. In turn, those with the inability to regulate the inflammatory response were more likely to develop colds when exposed to the virus.
Acute versus chronic pain
Unfortunately, some causes of low back pain are not prevented as easily. Disorders such as osteoporosis can lead to spinal compression fractures. Arthritis can also lead to back pain.
And, just as not all causes of back pain are equal, the discomfort typically falls into one of two categories: acute or chronic.
Acute back pain frequently heals on its own, while chronic sufferers benefit from treatment plans. Acute pain typically lasts fewer than six month and usually results from sustaining an injury. Chronic pain, however, may result from a condition such as osteoporosis, a degenerative disc disease, or arthritis. Chronic pain lasts longer and may require ongoing effort to manage.
What are common back pain symptoms?
Not all back pain is created equal; there are several different types of back pain and many different symptoms of back pain. Some of the most common areas for back pain are the upper, middle, and lower back, but you may also experience pain that is directly related to the sciatic nerve, low back strain, or back pain that only occurs at night.
Upper and lower back pain is the most common symptom, obviously. You may also experience pain in any area of the back that ranges from:
- Aching and stiffness in the neck, along the spine, or in the low back
- A chronic ache in the lower back
- Difficulty standing for long periods of time or pain in the low back when doing so
- Any sharp pain that is the result of physical activity (like lifting a box or playing a game of catch)
- Pain related to the sciatic nerve
- Lower back strain
Low back strain is one of the most common symptoms of back pain. This pain occurs when you do something that stretches the muscles and ligaments in your lower back beyond their capacity. This can happen when you exercise too strenuously without a proper warm-up, lift something improperly, fall, or bend over repeatedly. Once again, being overweight or out of shape can contribute to low back strain.
Sciatic back pain
Pain related to the sciatic nerve–the nerve that runs from the low back down both legs–can be both severe and debilitating. This type of pain may get worse when you sit and may make it difficult to move one or both of your legs. It can be either a constant ache or a shooting pain down the back or the side of the body. People who experience this type of back pain may have it only on occasion or may experience damage to the sciatic nerve that makes the pain part of their daily life.
Sciatic pain can be caused or exacerbated by many things, including:
- Being overweight
- Wearing high heels
- Not getting adequate exercise to build supportive back and abdominal muscle
Whatever the cause, if symptoms worsen, consult a doctor for back pain, as we’ll discuss.
When to see a doctor for back pain
There are many times when to see a doctor for back pain. Back pain can have a huge impact on your life, both in immediately serious ways and as a constant source of stress that can lead to mental health issues and lower quality of life.
See a back pain doctor–or regular doctor–immediately if your back pain is accompanied by:
- Sharp pain in the middle or upper range of your back, as this could be a sign of heart attack
- Numbness or tingling in your arms and legs
- Pain that moves down your leg or gets worse when you bend forward
- A fever or other sign of infection, such as redness or swelling
- Bowel or bladder control problems
- Unintended weight loss
If you have sudden onset back pain of any type, such as back pain that occurs after a high-impact car crash, bad fall, or injury, contact a back pain doctor immediately.
Avoiding quality of life issues
While these immediate and serious causes of back pain must be dealt with, there are other cases that may be more obscure or subtle that still have a huge effect on your quality of life. When back pain affects the plans you make, the amount of time you spend with friends or family, or limits the activities you engage in, it might be time to see a doctor for back pain.
For example, night time back pain is one of the least common types of back pain. This is pain that specifically occurs when you lay down. In fact, a person may be fine and not feel pain during the day but experience pain as soon as they turn out the lights. This can be caused by a number of things, including serious issues such as problems with the spine, scoliosis, or kidney stones, or it can be a symptom of tumors of the spine or cancer.
All persistent pain should be discussed with a back pain doctor, but night time back pain in particular should be addressed quickly as it can affect quality of sleep and subsequent ability to heal.
You should also talk to a back pain doctor if your back pain:
- Hasn’t improved after a week with management strategies, such as hot/cold therapy
- Is constant and intense
- Hampers your daily activities in a substantial way
Our post on the subject talks more about how untreated chronic pain can lead to depression and other mental health challenges. Finding help at the beginning of symptoms can go a long way towards avoiding these issues.
How to find a back pain doctor near me
Finally, talking to a back pain doctor who is specifically trained in pain management, rather than general care, can be incredibly important for managing symptoms. A primary care doctor can help begin the process. But, a back pain doctor can better diagnose the cause of your pain and suggest strategies for reducing or preventing it in the future.
As we discuss in our earlier post on the subject, finding a back pain doctor comes down to these key steps:
- Talk to your insurance company
- Talk to your primary care physician or other medical practitioner
- Talking to family and friends for recommendations
- Using an online search tool to find reviews
So, when to see a doctor for back pain? When it’s accompanied by symptoms that point to serious complications, such as infection, tumors, or heart attacks. Beyond that, it’s important to talk to a doctor for back pain before it drastically reduces your overall quality of life. While back pain is a common issue, each person experiences it differently. Find a back pain doctor in your area who can help you diagnose the cause of your pain and get you back to your best life.