Back Pain

Mild back pain is usually caused by poor posture, sudden movements, or lifting heavy objects, all of which may strain the back. Back pain is also common in pregnancy. Persistent or severe back pain may be the result of a more serious problem. You should consult your doctor if pain is severe or does not start to improve after 48 hours.

  • Did the pain in your back come on after either of the following?

    • An injury or fall

      Have you noticed any of the following symptoms?

      • Difficulty in moving a leg
        • Possible cause Your symptoms indicate that there may be spinal damage (see Spinal injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Numbness or tingling in a leg
        • Possible cause Your symptoms indicate that there may be spinal damage (see Spinal injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Loss of bladder control
        • Possible cause Your symptoms indicate that there may be spinal damage (see Spinal injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Numbness around the genitals, buttocks, or legs
        • Possible cause Your symptoms indicate that there may be spinal damage (see Spinal injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • None of the above
        • Possible cause Your back is probably strained and/or bruised (see Muscle strains and tears).

          Self-help Take a painkiller and try to stay as active as the pain allows. Consult your doctor if you are no better within 48 hours or if other symptoms develop.

    • A sudden, awkward movement

      Have you noticed any of the following symptoms?

      • Difficulty in moving a leg
        • Possible cause Your symptoms indicate that there may be spinal damage (see Spinal injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Numbness or tingling in a leg
        • Possible cause Your symptoms indicate that there may be spinal damage (see Spinal injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Loss of bladder control
        • Possible cause Your symptoms indicate that there may be spinal damage (see Spinal injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Numbness around the genitals, buttocks, or legs
        • Possible cause Your symptoms indicate that there may be spinal damage (see Spinal injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • None of the above
        • Possible cause Your back is probably strained and/or bruised (see Muscle strains and tears).

          Self-help Take a painkiller and try to stay as active as the pain allows. Consult your doctor if you are no better within 48 hours or if other symptoms develop.

    • Neither

      Do you have either of the following?

      • Pain in the back just above the waist
        • Possible cause Pyelonephritis is a likely cause of your symptoms.

          Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

      • A temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above
        • Possible cause Pyelonephritis is a likely cause of your symptoms.

          Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

      • Neither

        Did the pain occur after any of the following?

        • Lifting a heavy weight

          Does either of the following apply?

          • Pain makes any movement difficult
          • Pain shoots from the back down the back of the leg
          • Neither
            • Possible cause You have probably strained some of the muscles in your back or sprained some of the ligaments (see Lower back pain).

              Self-help Take a painkiller and try to stay as active as the pain allows. Consult your doctor if you are no better within 48 hours or if other symptoms develop.

        • A fit of coughing

          Does either of the following apply?

          • Pain makes any movement difficult
          • Pain shoots from the back down the back of the leg
          • Neither
            • Possible cause You have probably strained some of the muscles in your back or sprained some of the ligaments (see Lower back pain).

              Self-help Take a painkiller and try to stay as active as the pain allows. Consult your doctor if you are no better within 48 hours or if other symptoms develop.

        • Strenuous or unaccustomed physical activity

          Does either of the following apply?

          • Pain makes any movement difficult
          • Pain shoots from the back down the back of the leg
          • Neither
            • Possible cause You have probably strained some of the muscles in your back or sprained some of the ligaments (see Lower back pain).

              Self-help Take a painkiller and try to stay as active as the pain allows. Consult your doctor if you are no better within 48 hours or if other symptoms develop.

        • None of the above

          Have you been suffering from increasing pain and stiffness over several months or longer?

          • Yes

            How old are you?

            • 45 or over
              • Possible cause Osteoarthritis in the back is the most likely cause of your symptoms.

                Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

            • Under 45
              • Possible cause Ankylosing spondylitis is a possible cause of your symptoms, especially if you are male.

                Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • No

            Does either of the following apply?

            • You have recently been immobile due to illness or injury
              • Possible cause Fracture of a vertebra as a result of thinning of the bones is a possible cause (see Osteoporosis).

                Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

            • You are over 60
              • Possible cause Fracture of a vertebra as a result of thinning of the bones is a possible cause (see Osteoporosis).

                Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

            • Neither

              Are you in the last 3 months of pregnancy?

              • Pregnant
                • Possible cause New back pain or a worsening of existing back pain may indicate the start of labour.

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor or midwife immediately if you think that you may be going into labour.

              • Not pregnant
                • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your back pain from this chart, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance if you have back pain that is associated with the sudden onset of one of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty in controlling your bladder or bowels.
  • Numbness, tingling, or loss of strength in a leg.
  • Numbness around your genitals, buttocks, or anus.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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