Where does it hurt? That’s often the first question we ask patients when we evaluate their neck and back pain.
But location is just one factor we consider in diagnosing the cause of spine pain. Muscles, joints, discs, nerves, and various other structures in the body can contribute to the pain. In rare cases, pain can be the first symptom of a tumor or infection.
Sometimes, our brain is unable to recognize pain at its source. This phenomenon is known as referred pain, in which an injury or illness in a specific area of the body is perceived in an unrelated part of the body. For example, our doctors have detected kidney stones or pancreatic problems that cause middle- or low-back pain.
An estimated 80 percent of people will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Identifying the cause and treating the pain requires a thorough conversation about a patient’s symptoms.
“An estimated 80 percent of people will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Identifying the cause and treating the pain requires a thorough conversation about a patient’s symptoms.”
When is it time to see a doctor for back pain?
We ask our patients several important questions as a starting place to recommend precise, timely treatment for back pain.
1. How long has the pain been there? If the pain has gone on longer than the typical duration of a strain (several days for most patients), or if the pain is getting progressively worse, you should consult with your doctor.
2. Is the pain traveling anywhere else? When neck or back pain travels to the arms or legs, a pinched nerve might be the culprit. This type of pain warrants a more detailed conversation and a physical examination to properly diagnosis and treat the condition.
3. Are you experiencing other symptoms? Along with the back pain, are you having a fever, unintentional weight loss, pain at night, numbness, weakness, loss of balance, or bowel or bladder changes? These symptoms should not be ignored and warrant an evaluation by a medical professional.
Many patients can obtain back pain relief from conservative measures. A combination of lifestyle modifications, exercise, and medications often can help manage the pain and keep patients active.
If you have recurrent or persistent back pain, or if your pain is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, consult with your doctor to identify the cause and appropriately treat the condition.
The UT Southwestern Spine Center uses a team approach to care for patients with neck or back pain. Our specialists can collaborate on diagnostic and treatment plans for our patients to deliver optimal patient care. The spine team includes:
- Physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists
- Anesthesiology and pain management specialists
- Orthopedic spine surgeons
Tips to prevent back pain
As with many conditions, prevention is key. The general rule of thumb, especially for lower back pain, is to be smart with your back.
- Be cautious of lifting heavy items or weights without proper form or assistance.
- Avoid repetitive motions such as bending and twisting at the waist, particularly if you have back pain symptoms. For example, we’ve seen patients who suddenly decide to become aggressive with their workout routine, and then they run into setbacks with back pain. That can be demoralizing, and often avoidable with more planning.
- Be aware of your posture and ergonomics at work. If your job requires a lot of sitting (or standing), remember to change positions often to relieve pressure on your spine.
Related reading: Can a standing desk help my back pain?