Most people will experience back pain at some point in their lives. The nature of the pain can vary from a generalized muscle ache, stabbing or shooting pain, limited flexibility, stabbing or shooting pain or an inability to stand up straight.
Often, back pain is innocuous and resolves itself. However, severe or unusual back pain can be symptomatic of a larger health issue – one that may need care from the emergency room.
When does back pain become an emergency?
If you’re unsure what caused your back pain, or if it’s a fairly common occurrence, you can rest and recover at home.
However, if your pain lasts longer than 72 hours, or if you have a history of cancer, osteoporosis or drug and alcohol abuse, contact a physician. You will also need a doctor’s care if your back pain spreads down one or both legs, causes weakness, numbness or tingling in your legs or occurs with swelling and redness on your back.
You should seek ER care immediately if your pain causes new bowel or bladder problems, is associated with pain in your abdomen, is accompanied by a fever or follows a fall or other injury.
Find the cause for your back pain.
Back pain can result from a number of causes – anything ranging from an awkward sleeping position to major trauma.
Some of the more common conditions we see in the ER include:
- Arthritis, which can sometimes lead to a narrowing of the space around your spinal cord
- Bulging or ruptured disks between your vertebrae
- Muscle or ligament strain, especially if you’re not regularly physically active
- Osteoporosis, most frequently found in post-menopausal women
- Skeletal irregularities, such as scoliosis
While back pain is commonly associated with people who are middle aged or older, it can strike in anyone – including children and teens.
Know what to expect.
Typically, when you first enter the emergency room, a triage nurse will take your information and evaluate your symptoms to determine the level of care you need.
To determine a course of treatment, the emergency room provider will ask you for details about your pain, such as the exact location and duration, and possible complicating factors, such as your physical activity level and medical history. He or she will also likely check your reflexes and ability to stand, sit, walk and move your legs.
Depending on the physical assessment, physician may also order an X-ray, CT scan, MRI, bone scan or nerve study.
The ER can ease your pain.
Treatment for back pain can vary, depending on its severity and cause. Your ER care provider may recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as Tylenol or Advil, or prescribe a muscle relaxant.
For pain that radiates down your legs, an ER provider may give you an injection into the space around your spinal cord to decrease inflammation around the nerves.
To prevent the pain from recurring, you may also be referred to a physical therapist. Common therapy regimens include a variety of treatments and exercises to help build your flexibility, strengthen your back and improve your posture.
If you have back pain and need care, don’t delay. The Wesley EmergencyCare Network is close by and ready with ER locations west, central and east.
By: Dr. Francie Ekengren, MD
Chief Medical Officer
Wesley Medical Center
550 N. Hillside