Back pain: When is it serious? Here are the signs and symptoms you need to watch out for

Back pain is experienced by most people at least once in their lives. According to the NHS, it is estimated up to eight in ten people in the UK are affected by back pain at some point. The lower back is normally the most affected region. Most back pain falls under the category of “non-specific” (there’s no obvious cause) or “mechanical” (the pain originates from the joints, bones, or soft tissues in and around the spine).

The pain can be sudden or gradual, and is normally the result of poor posture or lifting something awkwardly. Other causes include feeling stressed or run down.

Existing medical conditions such as a slipped disk or sciatica could also be the culprit. 

Sciatica is caused by an irritation of the nerve that runs along the back to the feet. 

It is commonly thought that bed rest is an effective remedy but remaining active is likely to speed up your recovery. 

Other simple fixes include improving posture and better sleep.

Sufferers could also take anti-inflammatory painkillers and apply hot or cold compression packs to ease the pain.

Most people find the pain subsides within a couple weeks. In rare instances, however, back pain can be a sign of something more serious. 

“Conditions include a broken bone in the spine, infection, cauda equine syndrome (where the nerves in the lower back become severely compressed) or cancer,” according to the NHS.

It is also advisable to speak to a doctor if you feel unwell, develop a high temperature or have had cancer or osteoporosis in the past. 

The doctor might want to check that the back pain doesn’t have a more serious cause, says Bupa. 

You should seek medical attention right away if you have numbness or tingling around your bottom, have sudden difficulty passing urine, or are unsteady when you walk


“You should seek medical attention right away if you have numbness or tingling around your bottom or genitals, have sudden difficulty passing urine, lose control of your bowels, are unsteady when you walk, your legs feel weak or your foot is dropping or dragging,” it adds.

These symptoms could be signs of cauda equina syndrome.

Cauda equina syndrome ocurs when the nerves below the end of the spinal cord, known as the cauda equina, are damaged.

The NHS also recommends urgent medical attention if the pain is accompanied with unexplained weight loss, swelling or a deformity in your back, or if it started after a serious accident.

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