When Can Back Pain Become an Emergency?

Dr. Kaliq Chang

Several key symptoms – which may signal dangerous or even life-threatening problems – should spur patients to seek immediate medical attention.

Back pain can often be severe even when resulting from a relatively mild injury or spinal condition. But when can back pain become an emergency? Several key symptoms – which may signal dangerous or even life-threatening problems – should spur patients to seek immediate medical attention, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.

With 8 in 10 people experiencing low back pain at some point in their lives, it should be no surprise if this highly common situation erupts after an injury – such as a fall, sports mishap, or auto accident, Dr. Chang says. Other prevalent causes of back pain include osteoarthritis in the spine or back conditions such as spinal stenosis or herniated vertebral discs.

“The bad news is that back pain happens to most of us, but the good news is that most cases are highly treatable with home remedies such as over-the-counter pain relievers, heat or ice, or rest, and resolve in a matter of weeks,” says Dr. Chang, a highly specialized interventional pain management specialist. “Back pain can seem much worse than the problem causing it – it can feel serious even when it’s not. Rarely, however, back pain indicates an alarming cause.”

Tips on symptoms you shouldn’t ignore – and why

Since the intensity of back pain isn’t always a reliable sign of its seriousness, Dr. Chang explains symptoms you shouldn’t ignore and the conditions they may point to. These include:

Progressive leg weakness and/or loss of bladder or bowel control: If you’re losing sensation and strength in your legs and feet – and especially if it’s creeping to the “saddle” area in your groin and buttocks – you may have cauda equina syndrome. This condition, typically due to severe compression of the entire nerve sac in the lower spine, can result in leg paralysis and loss of bowel or bladder control – perhaps permanently – and may be treated with emergency surgery. “Those with cauda equina syndrome may have difficulty walking without stumbling, or may find themselves unable to walk at all, because of pain,…

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