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When to See a Doctor for Back Pain

Aug 2, 2021

Back pain is one of the most common medical problems, with 80% of people experiencing it at least once during their lifetimes. Most people with back pain can eliminate it by taking care of it at home. Although it may seem like a good idea to stay in bed and rest with back pain, this is not always a good idea. Muscles and joints will tend to stiffen and become less pliable, resulting in worse back pain for a longer time. Knowing when to see a doctor for back pain is important for proper diagnosis and long-term functioning.

Home Treatment for Back Pain

While it is important to know when to see a doctor for back pain, in many situations, home care is all that is needed. The best home treatments are the classic ones that have been around for ages: over-the-counter pain medications like Tylenol®, Aleve®, and Motrin®, along with hot and cold compresses. Heat increases blood flow to the area allowing for the influx of healing cells and for increased outflow to help remove the extra fluid that may cause swelling and pain. Cold decreases blood flow, preventing swelling from too much fluid in the injured area.

Also, it is important not to stay in bed immobile. Start with gentle but regular movements such as trips out of bed or the chair and walk for a minute or two depending on the pain level. Gradually increase movement as the pain allows. This is one of the most important activities for complete and rapid healing.

Before giving some general guidelines to help the pain sufferer decide when to see a doctor for back pain, it is important to note that anyone with questions, concerns, or who just does not feel comfortable managing back pain at home should make an appointment with an orthopedic doctor to be evaluated.

So, one answer to when to see a doctor for back pain is anytime a patient is unsure about home treatment or has questions. There is never a reason to avoid getting professional advice from one of the orthopedic/back pain specialists at the Orthopedic Institute of New Jersey.


Common Symptoms Associated with Back Pain

Symptoms commonly associated with back pain include:

●       Dull muscle aches;

●       Sharp shooting, burning, or stabbing sensations;

●       Pain that travels down the leg, to the stomach, or buttocks;

●       Pain that worsens with bending, twisting, lifting, standing, or walking;

●       Pain may be in a single area of the back of cover the entire back; and

●       Morning back stiffness that improves with movement.

While certainly rare, back pain can be a sign of something quite different. There have been documented cases of back pain being the only sign of metastatic lung cancer, heart attack, breast cancer, bone marrow cancer, and certain immune diseases. So, it is important to know when to see a doctor for back pain that might be more than just a back injury. If there is back pain with any of the following, call your orthopedic specialist right away:

●       No apparent injury preceding the pain;

●       Gradual onset of back pain;

●       Symptoms that begin with the back pain but are not related to it (e.g., chronic cough, rash or swelling in other parts of the body, excessive fatigue, etc.); and

●       Sudden symptoms occurring with back pain such as shortness of breath, sweating, or chest or arm pain.

How Long Should Back Pain Last

The first characteristic associated with back pain is whether it is acute or chronic. Acute back pain is new, comes on suddenly, and often resolves on its own within a few days to a couple of weeks. Acute back pain can last a few months on rare occasions, but it should disappear completely with no residual symptoms. Recall that the severity of the pain is not related to whether the back pain will be acute and resolve quickly or chronic and last for years.

Chronic back pain is pain that does not go away for 3 or more months. Some people suffer from back pain, intermittently for years. Anyone with chronic back pain should be under the care of an orthopedic back specialist. The major goals for patients with chronic back pain are strengthening the back muscles, minimizing painful episodes over long periods, and ultimately eliminating the pain possible in some patients with chronic back pain.

About 1 in 5 back pain sufferers will end up with chronic back pain. It is important to remember that chronic back pain does not mean there has been severe damage to the spine. Additional treatment is needed or a different type of treatment to achieve resolution of the pain. Deciding when to see a doctor for back pain may include a long duration of pain (i.e., chronic back pain not resolving with care at home.)

When to See an Orthopedic Doctor for Back Pain

It is important to know when to see a doctor for back pain and when things can be managed solely at home.

Suppose any of the following signs or symptoms accompany back pain. In that case, it is important to see a doctor to make sure there is nothing else going on and to be certain that immediate treatment is not needed to treat the problem. Should any of the following happen with back pain, call an orthopedic doctor for an appointment. If the back pain:

●       Won’t go away, especially after a couple of weeks.

●       Is constant or intense, especially at night while lying down.

●       Spreads to one or both legs, particularly continuing beyond the knee.

●       Causes some weakness, tingling, numbness in one or both legs.

●       Is accompanied by unintended weight loss.

●       Occurs with swelling or redness in the back.

●       Comes with fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, or general body weakness.

●       Occurs with numbness in the leg, foot, groin, or rectum.

●       Resulted from an obvious injury.

●       Is extremely intense and not helped by over-the-counter pain medication.

There are times when it is necessary to call an orthopedic specialist or go to the emergency room. These are situations where an orthopedic specialist needs to evaluate and diagnose problems quickly to determine if emergency treatment is needed to eliminate months or years of pain and disability.

The orthopedic doctor also needs to ensure no other diseases are affected by a back injury. If you experience back pain with any of the following, contact your orthopedic back specialist immediately or go to the emergency room.

●      Back pain from a high-impact car crash, bad fall, or sports injury.

●      Severe and/or new bowel or bladder control problems.

●      Fever with the back pain.

●      Substantial weakness throughout the body or just legs/feet or arms/hands.

●      Difficulty breathing or a new chronic cough.

●      Pain in the chest such as in the ribs or pressure in the center of the chest.

While these other symptoms may not be related to back pain (one can have a cold and back injury at the same time), back pain may cause damage to spinal nerves. This needs to be treated quickly so no permanent harm results.

For the best back pain care available, with experts who can evaluate, advise, and treat your condition, find an orthopedic back specialist near you. Once you know when to see a doctor for back pain, the rest is easy.

With eight locations and several urgent care centers, you can easily find the best surgeons, doctors, therapists, physiatrists, and more who are up-to-date on the latest in the evaluation and care of back pain. Visit the Orthopedic Institute of New Jersey today!

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