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When to see a doctor about back pain

Brain and Spine Physical Therapy
back pain

Back pain is one of the most common medical issues people face. In fact, 8 in 10 people experience back pain at some point in their lives.

“In most cases, back pain resolves itself with home treatment,” says John Lamm. M.D., a neurosurgeon and spine specialist with Riverside Hampton Roads Neurosurgical and Spine Specialists. “However, there are some situations where individuals should seek medical care right away.”

When you need prompt care for back pain

Lamm notes five situations where someone with back pain should seek prompt medical attention.

Risk of Infection:

Patients having back pain and also a fever should see a doctor. People who have compromised immune systems are also at increased risk of infection and should seek care. This includes patients with diabetes who have high sugar levels, people with HIV/AIDS, IV drug users and patients on some drugs that suppress their immune systems.  

Trauma or serious accident: 

Patients who have been injured in an accident, such as a motor vehicle accident or a serious fall, need to see a doctor to find out if they have broken any bones. For someone with a history of osteoporosis, even a minor accident with back pain should prompt a call to your doctor.  

Unexpected weight loss:

Having back pain and weight loss you can’t explain can be a warning sign of a serious medical conditions such as cancer. If the patient is a smoker or has a history of cancer, it is even more important for them to seek medical attention to find out the cause.

Loss of strength or sensation:

Symptoms such as dragging or dropped foot, weakness or lack of sensation in fingers and toes or a lack of fine motor skills can mean a nerve is irritated or inflamed. Other possible symptoms include tingling in the fingers and toes, a loss of strength and the need to always lean over on something, such as a grocery cart, for support.

Loss of bowel and bladder function:

Patients who have back pain as well as a sudden loss of bowel and / or bladder function should go directly to the emergency department to be checked. This is even more critical if the person isn’t aware of the incontinence until after the fact.  These symptoms are very serious and need medical care right away.

Caring for your back at home and when to seek care

The good news is that most patients with back pain do not need immediate medical care. Home treatment works for many patients.  

Four parts of managing back pain at home: 

  • Daily exercise and stretching to start and maintain core muscle strength
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, often called NSAIDs, to treat pain and manage inflammation. These are often found over the counter and can be taken by mouth, such as Advil, Motrin or Aleve, or by using topical creams, such as Aspercream or Voltaren, to apply the medication directly to the affected area.
  • Heat applied to the area to provide muscle relief, but it is important to not sleep on a heating pad as it can cause rashes and / or burns
  • Not smoking, vaping and / or using chewing tobacco

“If back pain doesn’t resolve within a few weeks, keeps you from doing your daily activities or prevents a good night’s rest, then it could be time to make an appointment to be evaluated,” says Dr. Lamm.  

Preventing back problems

While research is starting to show that your genes could have a role in you having back problems, lifestyle still plays an important role. Dr. Lamm focuses on several ways to help avoid back problems:

  • No smoking, vaping or tobacco
  • Maintain core muscle strength through regular exercise and stretching
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid back injuries by practicing safe lifting techniques (whether you are lifting boxes or toddlers)

If you are concerned about your back pain, talk to your physician. To see a Riverside primary care provider call 757-534-5352 to make an appointment or ask how to be seen safely through a secure video visit.  Your doctor may also refer you to Riverside’s Orthopedic Access Clinic for an initial workup or refer you to an expert in spine care or neurosurgery. To make an appointment at Riverside Hampton Roads Neurosurgical and Spine Specialists, please call 757-534-5200.


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