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When Should I See a Doctor for Back Pain? Red Flags to Watch 

Black woman suffering with back pain while sitting at home

We’ve all done it: Slept in the wrong position or pulled something while exercising. One time I even threw my back out grabbing a backpack next to my desk. But I wouldn’t see a doctor for back pain like that, right?  

Maybe. It’s true; almost everyone feels back pain at some point in their lives. And it usually goes away on its own.  

But what if it’s something more? Like many medical problems, figuring out whether you should wait it out or see a doctor for back pain can be tricky. You don’t want to be a hypochondriac. But you also don’t want to ignore symptoms that, left untreated, end up damaging your body more. 

We turned to UVA Health pain management specialist Lynn Kohan, MD, for answers. 

When Back Pain Won’t Quit 

The longer back pain sticks around, the less likely it is to go away by itself. When is the cutoff point for seeing a doctor? If your pain lasts more than 6 weeks, it’s time to see a doctor, Kohan advises.  

That’s especially true if at-home remedies like rest, pain relievers, and ice/heat haven’t helped, she notes.  

But sometimes, even waiting 6 weeks is too long.  

Red Flags: When Is Back Pain an Emergency? 

Kohan gave us this list of back pain red flags. If you see a red flag, seek medical care right away. 

Red flag: It started after a major trauma, like a big fall or car crash. 

What it could mean: A broken bone

Red flag: You have or had cancer. 

What it could mean: A tumor 

Looking for Pain Relief?

Our spine treatment experts can find the root cause of your pain and match you with the best treatment. Make an appointment today. 

Red flag: You have a fever, chills, or night sweats. 

What it could mean: An infection or tumor 

Red flag: You’ve lost weight without trying. 

What it could mean: An infection or tumor 

Red flag: You’re immunocompromised. 

What it could mean: An infection 

Red flag: Your pain is worse at night. 

What it could mean: An infection or tumor 

Red flag: You have incontinence or the parts of your body that would touch a saddle are numb. 

What it could mean: Cauda equina syndrome, which means the nerves at the bottom of your backbone are compressed. This needs treatment quickly to avoid permanent damage. 

Will I Need Surgery for My Back Pain? 

Not necessarily. There are many treatment options you can try before considering surgery, Kohan says. These include physical therapy, injections, and more.  

When nonsurgical treatments don’t give enough pain or symptom relief, you may consider spine surgery.  

If you do need surgery, you’re in good hands at UVA Health. Our expert spine surgeons have extra training in minimally invasive surgeries. That means a faster recovery with less pain. They also take on the hardest, most complex spine surgeries. Many centers in the mid-Atlantic refer their toughest cases to UVA Health.  

Tags: spine

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