Back Pain: Warning Signs and When to Call The Doctor

warning signs to call a doctor

Back Pain: warning signs and when to call the doctor

Almost everyone will experience back pain at some point in their lives.1 According to the World Health Organization, back pain is a leading cause of disability2 and a major cause of missed work.1,2 In the U.S. alone, back pain is second only to headache for common neurological conditions.1

While common, back pain can also vary considerably from person to person or incident to incident. It can be acute, lasting from a few days to a few weeks, or pain may be chronic if it lasts for 3 months or longer.1

Many people who experience back pain will treat their symptoms at home. Self-treatment may involve over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce pain.1 Heat therapy can also help to relax muscles and proper exercise can help to strengthen back and stomach muscles, thus speeding recovery.1 Always talk to a doctor before starting an exercise regimen. Bed rest may also be helpful, but is not recommended for more than 1 to 2 days.1

Sometimes, though, if back pain is severe or persistent seek medical attention.

Back pain warning signs

Back pain can be progressive, meaning it can worsen with time.1 That means it’s important to realize when back pain is serious enough to seek medical attention.

Experiencing any of the following back pain warning signs?
Contact your healthcare provider:1

  • No improvement of symptoms. If back pain does not decrease after 72 hours of self-care – including the use of pain relievers, rest, and appropriate exercise –contact a doctor.1
  • Sciatica. Sciatica is marked by back pain that extends down the spine to the leg. It is most commonly caused when a herniated disc presses on the sciatic nerve – the main nerve of the spine.1
  • Additional symptoms with pain. Pain accompanied by fever, pain when coughing, or pain with loss of bowel or bladder control are all symptoms that call for medical attention.1

Some other serious conditions can also cause acute or chronic back pain. These include osteoporosis, which is a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle; 1 skeletal irregularities, causing curving or rounding of the spine, which puts strain on the back; 1 and spondylitis – whereby infection or inflammation of the joints in the spine causes chronic back pain and stiffness.1 The presence of any of these conditions requires treatment from a healthcare provider to prevent additional damage and pain.


  1. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
  2. Low back pain. Bulletin of the World Health Organization.