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Back pain

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Mar 23, 2023.

What is back pain?

Harvard Health Publishing

Back pain can be a symptom of many different illnesses and conditions. The main cause of the pain can be a problem with the back itself or by a problem in another part of the body. In many cases, doctors can't find a cause for the pain. When a cause is found, common explanations include:

Rarer causes include:

Symptoms of back pain

Back pain varies widely. Some symptoms (often called "red flag" symptoms) may suggest that the back pain has a more serious cause. These include fever, recent trauma, weight loss, a history of cancer and neurological symptoms, such as numbness, weakness or incontinence (involuntary loss of urine or stool).

Back pain is often accompanied by other symptoms that may help point to its cause. For example:

Diagnosing back pain

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and your medical history. He or she will examine your back muscles and spine and will move you certain ways to check for pain, muscle tenderness or weakness, stiffness, numbness or abnormal reflexes. For example, if you have a disk problem, you may have pain in your lower back when the doctor raises your straightened leg.

Your symptoms and the physical examination may give your doctor enough information to diagnose the problem. However, with back pain, your doctor may only be able to tell you that the problem is not serious. If your doctor determines that your back pain is caused by muscle strain, obesity, pregnancy or another cause that is not urgent, you may not need any additional tests. However, if he or she suspects a more serious problem involving your vertebrae or spinal nerves, especially if your back pain has lasted longer than 12 weeks, you may need one or more of the following tests:

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

Expected duration of back pain

How long back pain lasts depends on its cause. For example, if your pain is caused by strain from overexertion, symptoms usually subside over days or weeks and you may be able to return gradually to your normal activities. However, you should avoid heavy lifting, prolonged sitting or sudden bending or twisting until your back gets better.

Women who have back pain caused by the added weight of pregnancy almost always will get better after delivery. People who are obese may need to lose weight before back pain eases.

People with back pain caused by pyelonephritis often begin to feel better within days after they start taking antibiotics, although they usually need to continue taking antibiotics for up to two weeks.

People with more serious forms of back pain caused by problems with the vertebrae or spinal nerves may have more persistent back pain that lasts for months and may last for years.

Preventing back pain

You can help prevent some forms of back pain by strengthening your back with exercises and by avoiding activities that lead to back injury. Measures that may help prevent back pain include:

To help prevent osteoporosis, make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D daily to meet the dietary requirements for your age group. Follow a routine program of weight-bearing exercise. Avoid smoking and limit the amount of alcohol you drink. If you are a woman who has entered menopause, speak with your doctor about testing for osteoporosis and medications that can help to prevent or reverse it. Screening men for osteoporosis is controversial, but some guidelines recommend bone density testing for men ages 70 and older.

Treating back pain

Most episodes of back pain are not serious and may be treated with:

People with back pain are encouraged to return to their normal activities gradually, and to temporarily avoid heavy lifting, prolonged sitting, or sudden bending or twisting.

If you are recovering from back pain, your doctor may ask you to call or return to his or her office for a follow-up visit in about two weeks to confirm that your symptoms are gone and that you can safely resume all of your normal activities.

If your back pain is related to more serious disorders of the vertebrae or spinal nerves or if it hasn't improved over a few weeks, you may be referred to a specialist, such as a pain specialist, an orthopedic surgeon (a doctor who specializes in diseases of the bones), a neurologist (a doctor who specializes in diseases of the nerves and brain) or a rheumatologist (an arthritis specialist).

When to call a professional

Contact your doctor if:

Prognosis

More than 90% of people with back pain get better after conservative treatment. Only 5% of people with back pain will have symptoms for more than 12 weeks and even among these people, the cause is usually not serious.

Additional info

American College of Rheumatology
http://www.rheumatology.org/

Arthritis Foundation
http://www.arthritis.org/

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
http://www.niams.nih.gov/


Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.