How To Know When Back Pain Could Be a Medical Emergency

Back pain usually means that a person is experiencing a pulled muscle, a muscle spasm, a slipped or herniated disc, or some other sort of musculoskeletal issue. However in some instances, certain types of back pain could be a sign of a true medical emergency that may become life threatening or result in disability if an experienced pain management specialist or orthopedist is not consulted immediately. How to know the difference? Syed S. Rahman, MD, a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation specialist with our Westchester Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine group, has written a very informative blog explaining the 5 types of back pain that needed to be recognized as a potential medical emergency.

5 types of back pain that might signal a medical emergency

It is very important to seek medical attention right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  1. Loss of Bladder or Bowel Control, or Progressive Leg Weakness

    Syed S. Rahman, MD

    Syed S. Rahman, MD

If you experience sudden bladder and/or bowel incontinence (dysfunction that causes retention of urine, inability to hold urine in, or loss of rectal control), or feel increasing weakness or numbness in the hips, crotch and legs, you should seek immediate medical attention. These symptoms may be indicative of cauda equina syndrome, which is usually caused by severe compression of the entire nerve sac in the lower spine.

  1. Unexplained Weight Loss and/or Loss of Appetite

Adult patients who lose weight rapidly or for no apparent reason (more than 5 pounds a week for several weeks) or lose their appetite (even for favorite foods) should consult their doctor. Rapid, unexplained weight loss can indicate a serious medical condition, such as cancer.

  1. Neck or Back Pain, Signaling Neurological Problems

A spinal tumor that is lodged in or around the spine would typically result in the following symptoms:

  • Pain in the neck or back, followed by neurological problems (such as weakness or numbness of the arms or legs, or a change in normal bowel or bladder habits)
  • Back pain that does not decrease with rest, or pain that is worse at night—even waking the patient during sleep
  • Any of the above symptoms along with loss of appetite, unplanned weight loss, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills or shakes
  1. Severe, Continuous Abdominal and Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain from a spine condition generally is localized in the back or in the extremities affected by the nerves that are aligned with spine segments. Rarely does lower back pain migrate to the abdomen. However, abdominal disorders can often extend to the lower back and be experienced as acute back pain. Acute lower back pain that does not follow an obvious trauma, or movement associated with the onset of pain, can be a symptom of an enlargement of the aorta (large artery) in the abdomen, called an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

  1. Sustained Fever and Increasing Pain

Fever (of more than 101° in adults) can indicate an infection. In the spine, an infection can occur as a result of a weakened immune system, or following surgery. Although relatively rare, spinal infections can give rise to an epidural abscess (a pus-filled cavity in the epidural space) that can press on the nerve structures in the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (upper back) or lumbar spine. This pressure on the nerves can impair gross motor function and may result in paraplegia or quadriplegia, depending upon where the compression is.

If you are experiencing any of these types of back pain, see an expert right away

If you experience any of these painful symptoms connected with your back, or any other types of back pain that you think might be an emergency, please contact our Westchester Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine group to see their pain management specialist. He can determine the severity of your condition and if it requires emergency treatment or more standard pain management techniques.

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To read Dr. Rahman’s blog in full, click here.

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