Sudden pain anywhere in the body typically makes us stop what we’re doing – and that’s especially true when it’s in your back. But is your sudden back pain due to a problem in your spine, or something else? The short answer is: It depends, says Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
Low back pain is so prevalent that it’s the second most common reason Americans see a doctor, according to the US National Library of Medicine. But all back pain isn’t created equal, and acute back pain has many various causes from minor to life-threatening.
“It’s important to understand that sharp back pain isn’t usually serious. Most commonly, it’s caused by something just as sudden, like an injury to the muscles and ligaments that support the back from a fall or from heavy lifting,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist.
“Your acute back pain might be due to muscle spasms or to a tear or strain in back muscles and ligaments,” he adds. “Still, while these are the most common triggers, everyone should be aware of the array of possible causes of sudden back pain so they can seek medical care when appropriate.”
Symptoms and causes of sudden back pain
Sudden back pain may seem self-explanatory: it’s sudden, and your back really hurts. But depending on the cause, Dr. Chang says other symptoms can also include pain in your leg, hip or bottom of your foot, or even weakness in your arms or legs.
“Pain isn’t a one-size-fits-all sensation, either,” he adds. “Back pain can also read as tingling and burning, and it can be so severe you’re unable to walk, sit straight or even move.” What are potential reasons for sudden back pain? According to Dr. Chang, spine-related causes include:
- Compression fracture to the spine from osteoporosis, which thins the bones
- Cancer that involves the spine
- Ruptured or herniated spinal disc
- Spinal stenosis or narrowing of the spinal canal
- Muscle or ligament strains or tears in the back
- Arthritis-related spinal degeneration
- Infection of the spine Meanwhile, causes of sudden back pain that are something else – in other words, not spine-related – include:
- Leaking abdominal aortic aneurysm
- Kidney stones or infection
- Pregnancy problems
- Women’s reproductive conditions, such as ovarian cysts or cancer; uterine fibroids; or endometriosis
Sudden back pain types
Back pain can be chronic and acute. Acute pain is a sudden short-term pain, which can be triggered by stress, exercises, or some movement, while chronic pain usually develops for some time and lasts for a long period.
Sudden back pain can be caused by many conditions.
Disk disease is a painful condition, which results from a wear and tear or even a crack of a spinal disc. It can be really painful if a disc is pressing on a nerve.
Spinal osteoarthritis can also cause pain. It can develop as a person gets older or as a result of an injury. The pain starts when the cartilage that cushions the bones wears down.
Osteoporosis makes your bones weaker and more prone to breaking, which can also cause sudden pain.
Another condition, which involves pain caused by pressure on a nerve, is sciatica. It can result in a sudden back pain, if a slipped disc is pressing on the nerve or when the nerve is inflamed.
Spinal stenosis is another condition that triggers pain. A narrowing of a spinal column increases pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.
All of the mentioned above conditions are linked to mechanical back pain. It is pain caused by wear and tear. However, some inflammatory conditions can also result in sudden pain.
Different forms of inflammatory arthritis can cause such pain.
Psoriatic arthritis doesn’t necessarily affect the back, but in some cases, a patient experiences back pain.
Ankylosing spondylitis and fibromyalgia can also cause severe back pain. However, it is more typically chronic rather than sudden.
Some activities, such as lying in bed for long periods, can worsen your pain, so try to avoid them. You can mind your movements and avoid those causing more pain. There are several at-home remedies to ease the pain. Among them is using heat or cold and applying it to the affected areas. Gentle stretching can also be helpful to ease the pain. However, it is important to learn proper stretching techniques, otherwise, you can worsen your state. Some over-the-counter medications can help relieve pain, but they treat the symptoms, instead of the cause of the problem.
You can also join physical therapy. The goal of physical therapy is to strengthen the muscles of the spine, abdomen, buttocks, and hips; stretch tight muscles; increase core strength; and improve aerobic conditioning with gentle exercises like walking, and water therapy. Some forms of massage therapy can be helpful to relax tight muscles and improve circulation. Medication might include prescription drugs like oral steroids or – for short periods – opioid analgesics, and muscle relaxers; over-the-counter remedies such as non-steroidal anti-inflammation drugs (NSAIDS) like naproxen and ibuprofen.
When to see a doctor
Most back pain, even if it comes on suddenly, lasts from a few days to a few weeks, Dr. Chang says. But how do you know if you should be patient and ride it out, or if you should see a doctor?
Dr. Chang advises calling your doctor immediately if you have:
- Severe blow or fall that triggers your back pain
- Blood in your urine or a burning sensation while urinating
- History of cancer
- Loss of control over your bowel or bladder
- Unexplained fever with back pain
- Weakness or numbness in your pelvis, buttocks, thigh or leg
- Pain that travels below the knees
- Inability to get comfortable regardless of body position
“To be clear, the majority of back pain isn’t due to anything serious,” Dr. Chang says. “But there are sometimes reasons to worry. Listen to your gut and see a doctor if your sudden back pain doesn’t ease or includes other alarming symptoms.”
It’s best to start with your primary care physician. And then, if this doctor isn’t able to diagnose or treat the pain, he or she can recommend you to a specialist to determine a multidisciplinary approach to treat the pain and the condition causing it.