Many people suffering from back pain wonder, “How do I know if my back pain is serious? How can I distinguish a small problem from something bigger and in need of medical intervention?”

The truth is that back pain is incredibly common, with millions of people around the world suffering from back pain every day.

For some, it can be mild, but for others, it can be more serious than they realize. If they’re not careful, it could turn into something debilitating!

Below, we’re going to give you the answer to the question “How do I know if my back pain is serious?” and show you a few of the most common signs that the pain isn’t just a minor inconvenience, but something that needs a doctor’s attention sooner rather than later.

How Do I Know if My Back Pain Is Serious?

Before we get into the red flags marking serious back pain, it’s important to understand the different types of back pain you might be dealing with. It typically boils down to two types:

Acute pain. An acute pain is something that tends to be sharp and sudden, typically brought on by a sudden injury. You’ll feel this type of pain after wrenching your back, slipping a disc, or suffering from an impact or trauma injury.

The majority of back pain is acute pain. It will typically go away after no more than six weeks, because that’s how long the minor injuries behind the pain will take to heal. 

Chronic pain. Chronic pain is far less severe than acute pain, and it’s not at all sudden. Instead, it’s pain—ranging from low-grade aches to sharp, prominent pain—that lasts longer than six weeks. Recurring pain (pain that comes and goes) also qualifies as chronic pain, and can be an indicator of a more serious injury.

As you probably guessed, chronic pain is often a sign that your back pain is more serious than just a minor injury. Minor injuries cause acute pain, but tend to resolve within a few days or a few weeks. However, if the pain is recurring or lasts more than six weeks, it’s a sign that there is something more serious wrong with your back that is causing this persistent pain. Chronic pain definitely is an indicator that you need to get to a doctor and find out what’s going on.

Here are a few other common signs that your back pain is more serious than a minor injury:

Radiating pain. Pain that starts in one location (typically your lower back) but shoots or radiates outward to other parts of your body is called “radiating” pain. If your pain radiates beyond your lower back and reaches your glutes or your legs, it could be an indication that there is nerve compression (the pain signals are being sent all along the nerve branches rather than remaining localized). Nerve compression isn’t just painful—it can also be a more serious, even debilitating problem.

Incontinence. Back pain doesn’t typically lead to incontinence (an inability to control the muscles of your bladder or bowel), so when it does, it’s a serious red flag to be aware of! The combination of incontinence and back pain may be an indicator that there is severe nerve compression affecting the groin muscles, or it might even pinpoint a spinal infection (meningitis or discitis, for example). Whatever the case, it’s definitely a sign you need to get to the doctor immediately.

Sharp pain. Sharp (acute) pains are an indicator of damage being sustained by a bone, joint, muscle, or soft tissue. Most of the time, the pain of a slipped or herniated disc will be sharp initially, but quickly turn into a low, dull ache. However, if the pain remains sharp, it could mark the presence of a torn ligament or even damaged muscle. If the pain is really bad, it’s possible the injury that damaged your spine also damaged one of your nearby internal organs.

Pins-and-needles or numbness. Minor back injuries won’t cause numbness or the pins-and-needles sensation in your glutes or groin area, so if this sensation presents, it’s typically a sign of something more serious. Often, it’s either serious nerve damage or a spinal condition that is affecting the spinal nerves. It’s imperative that you get to a doctor and get the problem checked out ASAP.

Leg weakness. Leg weakness following a back injury is typically the fault of nerve compression—swelling in your back is reducing the function of the nerves that control your leg muscles. Spinal stenosis and sciatica are common causes of limb weakness, but there is a chance that it’s also being caused by a stroke. Both conditions are serious enough to warrant a visit to your doctor!

Other red flags. A few of the less common—but no less serious—red flags to watch out for include:

  • Blood in your urine or stool

  • Persistent fevers

  • Sexual dysfunction

  • Problems with your balance

  • Progressive worsening of your pain

  • Unplanned weight loss

  • An inability to alleviate your pain despite trying multiple positions

    If you notice any of these less common symptoms, it’s time to get yourself checked out.

    How Do I Know if My Back Pain Is Serious? Cure the Problem with the Back on Track System

    If you’re worried your back pain is serious, then you need our Back on Track System to help you regain control of your life and heal your back. This system is designed for people with all types of back pain, and it provides a natural, holistic approach to solving your problem and strengthening your mind and body. You’ll learn how one “sleeper syndrome” might be behind a lot of your back pain, and how you can fix the problem to reduce back pain.

    You’ll never ask “How do I know if my back pain is serious?” again because with our help, your pain may very well vanish!