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
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.”