Back pain: when should you see a doctor?

Written by: Top Doctors®
Published: | Updated: 21/02/2019
Edited by: Top Doctors®

Many people experience back pain at least once in their lives. Although in most cases it may disappear after a few weeks or months, occasionally when the pain persists or keeps on returning it is advised to seek advice from a GP or specialist.

What are the most common causes of back pain?

Sometimes it is hard to define the root cause of back pain, in which case the condition is termed “non-specific” back pain. Occasionally after an injury such as a strain, an individual may experience pain in their back, but rarely is the cause serious.

Every now and then a medical condition such as a slipped disc or sciatica may be the reason an individual’s back hurts, but the pain usually comes with other symptoms such as numbness or weakness.

In very rare circumstances, back pain might come as a result of a broken bone in the spine, an infection, or even cancer.


How to relieve back pain

There are measures that can be taken to hasten an individual's recovery period and alleviate pain. Doctors advise remaining as active as the pain permits, as well as continuing with daily life as normal. Too much rest increases the chance of making the back pain worse.

Certain exercises and stretches may help to alleviate symptoms. These include swimming, walking, and yoga. Anti-inflammatory painkillers may be recommended, only if the medicine is deemed safe for the individual in question. A pharmacist should be able to answer any questions regarding this.

For short-term pain alleviation, using hot or cold compression packs can help a great deal. A hot water bottle or a bag of frozen vegetables work to equal effect.

A minimally invasive surgical option would be rhizolysis, where a probe is inserted near to the nerve in the spine, which uses radiofrequency to heat the nerve and stop it sending pain signals along the spine. 

When to seek medical advice

If the pain doesn't show signs of improvement within a few weeks, is getting worse, or hinders you from taking part in daily activities, you should seek advice about your back pain from a GP, physiotherapist, or specialist. They will be able to recommend possible treatments after an examination.

In certain situations, immediate medical attention should be sought, including: unexplained weight loss, numbness or tingling in the genitals or buttocks, difficulty peeing, or the appearance of a swelling or deformity on the back. If the back pain began after an accident, such as a car crash, or it is worse at night, you should also see a doctor immediately. If the back pain is caused by a more serious, underlying health condition, surgery may be necessary. 


How to prevent back pain

Like so many conditions, often prevention is better than cure. Although preventing back pain is problematic, as so much depends on the cause, there are a number of ways to decrease the risk of developing back pain. These include:

  • Leading an active life
  • Maintain a good posture when sitting
  • Avoid slouching
  • Do not sit down for prolonged periods of time, such as at work or when driving
  • Regular back exercises and stretches
  • Be careful when lifting heavy objects (lift with the legs, not the back)
  • Invest in a decent mattress
  • In the case of overweight individuals, losing weight is also recommended 

Learn more about preventing back pain here!


By Topdoctors
Orthopaedic surgery

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