Acute back pain often goes away on its own after a few days or weeks. But chronic back pain may hang on or flare up for months or even years.
It’s only human to have an achy back at some point in your life. The pain comes in many shapes and sizes – aching, burning, stabbing, tingling, sharp, dull, intense or mild – but doctors also classify back pain based on how long you’ve had it.
- Acute back pain usually lasts from a few days to a few weeks. It can last as long as six weeks. It can start after a jarring injury, such as a car accident, or strenuous activity, such as weeding the garden or lifting something heavy. But often, the cause of the pain remains a mystery.
- Chronic back pain lasts longer than three months. It may start suddenly – say, after a fall – or develop slowly over time, perhaps because of spinal problems caused by age.
Back pain can be caused by mechanical problems, injury, infection or other disease. It can be brought on by conditions that affect the spine, disks, ligaments, soft connective tissues, muscles, joints or cartilage of the back.
Anyone can get back pain, but you’re more at risk as you age or if you:
- Are overweight
- Have bad posture
- Have cancer, arthritis or another disease that causes pain
- Have a physically demanding job
Diagnosing back pain
The list of potential suspects for back pain is long. Finding the source may be hard or even impossible.
Your doctor will start with a thorough physical exam and talk with you about your medical history. He or she will ask questions about the pain, including when it started and whether anything makes it feel better or worse. This information alone may be enough to help your doctor decide how to proceed.
In other cases, you may need to undergo tests to rule out problems. Tests may include:
- X-rays to check for fractures, proper spine alignment or arthritis
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for infection, herniated disks, pinched nerves, tumors or inflammation
- Computed tomography (CT) scans to look for herniated disks, tumors or spine problems
- Blood tests to check for infection, inflammation or genetic conditions
Your doctor may not find the exact cause of the pain. But treatment may start even without a definitive answer.
When to see a doctor
The good news is that most back pain goes away within a short time. In fact, about 80 percent of acute lower back problems are nearly or completely gone within six weeks.
However, you should see a doctor right away if you experience:
- Numbness or tingling
- Pain that gets worse or does not improve with rest or treatment
- Pain after a fall or an injury
- Pain accompanied by weakness, leg numbness, fever, trouble urinating or weight loss without dieting
Seek immediate emergency medical help if you have back pain and have:
- Had a major fall or injury
- Numbness in the groin or “saddle area” (that part of your pelvis that would be touching a saddle if you were on a horse)
- Pain that is sudden or severe
- Blood in your urine
Also, call your doctor right away if you have back pain and are pregnant, as this might be a sign of labor.