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Back pain: Symptom

Medically reviewed on August 3, 2018

Definition

Your spine is a column of bones (vertebrae) held together by muscles, tendons and ligaments and cushioned by shock-absorbing disks. A problem in any part of your spine can cause back pain. For some people, back pain is simply an annoyance. For others, it can be excruciating and disabling.

Most back pain — even severe back pain — goes away on its own within six weeks. Surgery usually isn't needed for back pain and generally is considered only if other treatments are not effective.

Causes

A common cause of back pain is injury to a muscle (strain) or ligament (sprain). Strains and sprains can occur for many reasons, including improper lifting, poor posture and lack of regular exercise. Being overweight might increase your risk of strains and sprains affecting your back.

Back pain can also result from arthritis and other age-related changes in your spine, from more-serious injuries, such as a vertebral fracture or ruptured disk, and from certain infections.

Possible causes of back pain include:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Endometriosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Herniated disk
  • Kidney infection (pyelonephritis)
  • Kidney stones
  • Obesity
  • Osteoarthritis (disease causing the breakdown of joints)
  • Osteomyelitis (a bone infection)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Poor posture
  • Pregnancy
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory joint disease)
  • Sacroiliitis
  • Sciatica
  • Scoliosis
  • Spinal fractures
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Sprains and strains

When to see a doctor

Most back pain gets better within a few weeks without treatment. Bed rest isn't recommended. Over-the-counter pain medications often help reduce back pain, as does the application of cold or heat to the painful area.

Schedule an office visit

Call your doctor if your back pain hasn't improved after a week of home treatment or if your back pain:

  • Is constant or intense, especially at night or when you lie down
  • Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain extends below your knee
  • Causes weakness, numbness or tingling in one or both legs
  • Occurs with unintended weight loss
  • Occurs with swelling or redness on your back

Seek emergency medical care

Call 911 or emergency medical help or have someone drive you to the emergency room if your back pain:

  • Occurs after a high-impact car crash, bad fall or sports injury
  • Causes new bowel or bladder control problems
  • Occurs with a fever

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