A man with back pain holding his lower back

When looking at the frequency of both chronic and acute pains, back pain is the most common. It is estimated that around 8 in 10 people will experience back pain at some point throughout their lives. While back pain usually goes away on its own with time, long-lasting chronic pain may be cause for medical assistance. 

With back pain being so common, many people are wondering if they have enough reason to pursue pain management through a medical provider. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding back pain.

A man with back pain holding his lower back

When Should I See a Doctor for Back Pain?

It is generally recommended that you seek medical assistance for back pain as soon as the pain impacts your quality of life. You may have tried to manage the pain with pain relievers, ice, and rest, but if those methods are not working, it’s probably time to see a doctor. 

There are a few major signs that it’s time to see a doctor for back pain:

  • Pain that lasts weeks: The majority of problems causing back pain will subside after a few days. This means that if your pain has lasted multiple weeks, there is probably a deeper issue to address – one that may require medical assistance. 
  • Pain in other parts of the body: If your back pain is accompanied by pain in other areas of the body, such as the legs, then it’s time to see the doctor. Pain in the leg specifically, could be a sign that you have sciatica – pain stemming from the sciatic nerve in the lower back. 
  • Pain after an accident: If you’ve recently taken a hard fall or been in a car accident and have since suffered from back pain, medical assistance is likely required. There could be a more serious problem to address, such as a fracture. 

It’s also advised to see a doctor if your back pain is coupled with fatigue, fever, loss of strength in arms or legs, unexplained weight loss, and loss of bowel control. After addressing your symptoms, a back pain specialist will be able to provide you with multiple resources for pain management. By choosing a highly specialized care provider, you can rest assured that you’ll be provided with a treatment plan that’s customized for your specific situation.

A man with lower back pain holding his lower back

Lower Back Pain 

Are you wondering when the right time is to see a doctor for lower back pain? Lower back pain is the most common pain associated with the back. One study suggested that it’s the most common type of physical pain experienced altogether. The study reported that over 25% of adults had experienced severe lower back pain in the 3 months prior to the study. 

Causes of Lower Back Pain

Most often, lower back pain is caused by strained muscles or ligaments as a result of certain lifestyle factors. Lower back pain from sprains or strains can happen suddenly or develop over extended periods of time. A muscle or ligament strain occurs when the muscle is stretched too far and tears. 

A strained muscle doesn’t usually cause long-lasting pain, but the acute pain can be quite severe, and may stem from the following:

  • Lifting heavy objects or twisting the spine while lifting
  • Poor posture over time (posture without lumbar support – most commonly includes being hunched over a desk)
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle, not being physically fit
  • Sudden, jarring movements that place stress on the lower back, like a bad fall
  • Sports injuries or car injuries

As mentioned before, while it is not common to experience chronic pain from these causes, it is still possible. Some of the more frequently experienced causes of chronic lower back pain include:

  • Herniated Disc: A herniated disc in the lumbar region can sometimes break, causing inflammation as well as nerve compression, which can cause severe lower back pain. 
  • Degenerative Disc DiseaseThe wearing down of intervertebral discs over time can lead to a loss of cushioning, fragmentation, and herniation in the spine. 
  • Spinal StenosisThis condition is explained by the narrowing of the spinal canal where the nerve roots are located, often causing chronic pain. 

Other causes of chronic pain may include osteoarthritis, sciatica, fibromyalgia, compression fractures, and trauma. 

When to See a Doctor for Lower Back Pain

While most symptoms of acute lower back pain will subside on their own, it is recommended to see a doctor if your symptoms shift to those of chronic lower back pain. Chronic lower back pain is usually classified as pain lasting longer than 12 weeks. It’s necessary to see a doctor as soon as possible to the 12-week mark because symptoms can escalate quickly. Without treatment, chronic lower back pain can progressively reduce your quality of life, impacting your mobility and functionality. 

A specialist skilled in dealing with lower back pain can help evaluate your symptoms and determine the correct course of action. Treatments for lower back pain are different for everyone, and are normally determined by evaluating symptoms of pain, your medical history, and potential cause of pain.

Man lying on a table experiencing trigger point pain in is upper back

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Upper Back Pain 

While not as commonly experienced as lower back pain, upper back pain can still be severe, and may require medical attention. It is estimated that around 1 in 10 men and 1 in 5 women suffer from upper back pain. 

Causes of Upper Back Pain 

Like the lower back, the upper back can experience pain through torn or strained muscles stemming from things like injury, poor posture, or improper lifting. Here are some of the most common causes of upper back pain:

  • Muscle deformation stemming from poor posture (caused by frequent slouching or hunching in a chair or at a desk)
  • Muscle overuse – common in athletes (such as a pitcher in baseball) who complete the same repetitive motion over and over
  • Traumatic injuries from falls, car accidents, or work-related accidents
  • Improper lifting – during weightlifting or the general lifting of objects
  • Pinched nerve – often caused by a herniated disc in the upper or middle back

Some of the other common causes of back pain may include osteoarthritis, myofascial pain, spinal infections, and more. 

When to See a Doctor for Upper Back Pain 

The majority of upper back pain causes are short-lived and will resolve on their own with proper use of ice, rest, gentle stretching, and exercise. However, if your symptoms of upper back pain don’t resolve over time or continue to get worse, it is always recommended to seek medical attention from an upper back pain doctor. 

On rare occasion, upper back pain can be a side effect of a more severe condition. Heart attacks, aortic aneurysms, and a collapsed lung are a few of the many life-threatening conditions that may induce upper back pain. As it is the case with all categorizations of back pain, it is recommended to see help if your upper back pain is accompanied by chest pains, fatigue, nausea, fever, weakness in arms or legs, or loss of bowel control.

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Middle Back Pain 

Pain in the middle section of the back (lower thoracic spine) is not as common as upper and lower back pain because the spine is less mobile in this area. This section of the spine is less exposed to the risks and strains that may come from the common causes of back pain, such as poor posture. Symptoms of middle back pain occur progressively most of the time, and may include muscle stiffness, dull pain, muscle aches, or a sharp, stabling pain. 

Causes of Middle Back Pain 

As it is the case with upper and lower back pain, pain in the mid back is normally caused by lifestyle factors or incidents of injury. Some of the most common causes of middle back pain include:

  • Poor posture 
  • Lifestyle factors (obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, etc.)
  • Strains or sprains stemming from injury or improper lifting 
  • Herniated discs, which can place pressure on the nerves 
  • Bone diseases (osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, etc.)

When to See a Doctor for Middle Back Pain 

Have you been asking yourself, “when should I worry about mid back pain?” Like any form of back pain, pain in the middle back can quickly affect your mobility, functionality, and overall quality of life. If you’ve reached a point where your overall quality of life has decreased as a result of your pain, it is definitely recommended that you seek medical attention. 

Certain symptoms of middle back pain may indicate a more serious health problem. These include numbness/tingling in the legs, arms, and chest, weakness of arms and legs, or a loss of bladder control. If you’ve shown even the slightest sign of experiencing these more alarming symptoms, your situation likely requires medical attention from a care provider who specializes in middle back pain. 

Are You Ready to go to the Doctor for Back Pain Management? 

If you’ve been experiencing severe back pain for over 12 weeks, then by all measures you have chronic back pain, and should seek medical assistance as soon as possible. It’s also recommended to pursue pain management if your back pain has occurred after an accident or injury. Managing back pain on your own can be difficult, but with the help from a pain and spine specialist, you’ll be able to find the right treatment for your specific symptoms.

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