How Do I Know If My Back Pain is Serious?
When you’re experiencing constant pain in your back, you can get bogged down in thoughts of why it’s happening, how you can manage it, and when it’s going to stop.
In some cases, that back pain might be nothing to worry about, and it could well disappear on its own within a few days. However, if you feel back pain when coughing, lying down or breathing – or you feel tingling in your limbs or genitals – then it could be a sign that you need further medical attention to stop back pain.
In this article, we will talk through the potential different causes of back pain and signs of when back pain is serious, as well as how to relieve back pain fast at home, if you’re waiting to speak to a GP or physio.
What are the causes of back pain?
Whether you feel a sharp pain in your back while breathing or you experience back pain when coughing, it’s not always obvious what’s causing your discomfort.
And while your back pain can sometimes get better on its own, it could be caused by a condition or injury that requires special attention. For example, a pulled muscle or strain is a common cause of back pain, which can be treated with the likes of cold compressions, over-the-counter painkillers, and gentle stretches. These treatments are focused on easing back pain by reducing any inflammation or swelling.
Back pain can also be caused by medical conditions such as a slipped disc, sciatica (or a trapped nerve) or ankylosing spondylitis – which would need you to seek medical advice on the best treatment on how to stop back pain.
In very rare cases, back pain can be a sign of a serious problem like a broken bone, cancer, or an infection. If you are worried about your back pain being a sign of one of these conditions, be sure to speak to your GP, who can alleviate any anxiety, provide more insight on your pain, and discuss potential treatments for how to ease back pain.
For more information on the potential causes of back pain, head over to the NHS website.
When is back pain serious?
If you feel back pain when coughing or you’re just generally worried about lower back pain, it can be difficult to measure your pain or discomfort and understand the severity of the injury. That’s why we’ve pulled together a list of serious back pain symptoms that could be a sign you require urgent medical care, such as:
- You have a high temperature.
- You experience unexpected weight loss.
- A lump or swelling has developed in your back or your back has changed shape.
- Your back pain does not improve after resting or is worse at night.
- Your back pain is worse when coughing, sneezing, or pooing.
- You feel the pain coming from the top of your back (between your shoulders), rather than your lower back.
- You feel pain, tingling, weakness, or numbness in both legs.
- You feel numbness or tingling around your genitals or buttocks.
- You have difficulty peeing.
- You experience loss of bladder or bowel control (peeing or pooing yourself).
- You have chest pains.
- Your back pain started after a serious accident, such as a car accident.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms that indicate when back pain is serious, it is recommended you ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from 111.
How to manage back pain at home
For those who do not need urgent attention, but still want to understand how to stop back pain, the wait for a GP appointment can sometimes be a long and frustrating one. What’s more, if you’re experiencing pain in your back the in meantime, you’re probably left feeling quite stressed and low.
Whether it be a sharp or dull pain, a throbbing feeling or consistent ache, there are several tips for back pain that you can try to alleviate any back pain or discomfort, including:
Staying active and continuing your daily routine: While it might seem counter-intuitive when you’re worried about lower back pain. As far as possible, try to continue with your usual everyday activities. Keeping as active as possible can improve the healing process and reduce stiffness.
Taking over-the-counter painkillers: Anti-inflammatory medicines are great for relieving back pain fast at home. You can get these in patch form as well; stick one of these on before you dash out the door for some on-the-go soothing. Just be sure to check with a pharmacist that you can take pain relief, if you have any existing medical conditions or are on other medications.
Using an ice pack: Another simple tip for back pain, ice packs or cold compressions ease inflammation, and you can usually pick these up at your local pharmacy. Just be careful not to ice the area for longer than 20 minutes at a time and cover with a tea towel to prevent direct exposure.
Applying a heat pack: These can help relax the muscles, improve circulation, and reduce pain. It’s typically recommended to use a heat patch in the morning and as you're winding down in the evening. Similar to ice packs, be mindful not to use a heat pack longer than 10 to 15 minutes in one sitting.
For more information on how to manage back pain, take a look at our Be Healthy hub where you will find helpful articles on back pain symptoms and how to look after your joints. Alternatively, if you still feel worried about lower back pain or any back pain at all, consider speaking to your primary care practitioner.
With Benenden Health’s affordable private healthcare, you gain access to our 24/7 GP Helpline from day one. This means you can book an appointment for a telephone or video consultation with a UK-based GP for you or your immediate family whenever and wherever you need it.
Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly in September 2023. Next review date: September 2024.