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4 Signs It’s Time to See a Doctor for Your Back Pain

April 12, 2024

When back pain strikes, you may be temped to dive down an online rabbit hole.

But you may want to pause, says Vijay Yanamadala, MD, a neurosurgeon with the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute.

“We’re conditioned to think that pain means something is wrong with our back or spine,” says Dr. Yanamadala. “If we touch something hot and burn ourselves, we feel pain because that is our body’s natural response to tell us that something is wrong. Often with back pain, there is nothing underlying that is actually wrong.”

So, how do you know when you need a doctor for back pain? Dr. Yanamadala breaks it down.

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Your back pain is likely due to muscular imbalance.

You may think that your spine is to blame for your pain, but muscles are usually the culprit.

“When we have a weak core, our abdominal muscles cannot support our spine as they should,” explains Dr. Yanamadala.

You can try these 6 ways to treat back pain at home or look to physical therapy to help with core strengthening exercises.

“It’s the number one treatment for the vast majority of back pain,” Dr. Yanamadala adds. “More than 70% of people with back pain get better with physical therapy alone.”

4 signs to schedule that appointment today.

There are cases where back pain is a sign of something more significant.

Dr. Yanamadala urges you to see your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  1. Back pain that lasts more than 6 to 8 weeks despite physical therapy and exercise.
  2. Back pain paired with pain radiating down your leg or numbness or weakness in your legs.
  3. Disturbances with the way you urinate or have bowel movements.
  4. Neck pain that lasts more than 6 weeks or comes with pain that radiates down your arms, numbness in your arms or hands, weakness in your arms or hands, discoordination or unsteadiness on your feet.

> Related: How to Know When Back Pain Requires Surgery

It’s important not to ignore these symptoms.

If you’ve noticed any of those symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor sooner rather than later.

“Neglecting to see a doctor can have significant consequences,” says Dr. Yanamadala.

Spinal cord or nerve root compression (usually signified by arm or leg symptoms) can progressively get worse.

“Unfortunately, once weakness and numbness occur, they are not always reversible. Once our nerves or spinal cords are compressed or damaged, it is very difficult to regain this lost function,” Dr. Yanamadala explains.

Plus, if the pain lasts more than three months, it becomes chronic.

“Chronic pain can last years,” he adds. “It’s important to address acute pain so we can get you the right care or physical therapy quickly. This early intervention can help prevent pain from becoming chronic and ultimately give you the best chance of living a pain-free life.”

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Your doctor is here to help with your back pain.

The first step is to figure out what’s going on.

In your initial appointment, your doctor will cover a lot of ground, including:

  • Your pain history.
  • How long you’ve had this pain.
  • When your pain happens.
  • How severe the pain is.
  • What makes the pain better and worse.

Your physical examination may include imaging studies, like x-rays, CT scans or MRI scans.

“From there, we’ll work with you on a comprehensive plan to improve your back pain,” says Dr. Yanamadala.

This care plan may include physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic care, injections or surgery.

“My usual philosophy is to always start with the least invasive care possible,” he adds. “Surgery should always be a last resort unless you have a condition that requires it more urgently.”

Back pain relief can start with a conversation with your doctor.

The biggest take away is to listen to your body, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a doctor if things aren’t getting better, says Dr. Yanamadala.

“If you’re thinking about seeing a doctor, come see us,” he says. “We’re not here to push a particular treatment. Instead, let’s look at your goals and come up with the right treatment plan to get you there.”