Signs That Back Pain Needs Emergency Attention


In many cases, back pain is manageable with time and conservative treatment. However, some cases of back pain are a medical emergency.

Here are some signs that back pain requires emergency medical attention:

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
    Back pain accompanied by the loss of control of bowel or bladder function indicates spinal cord compression (myelopathy). A rare but serious condition called cauda equina syndrome (compression of the spinal nerve roots at the lower end of the spinal cord) requires immediate medical attention.
  • Loss of feeling in the arms or legs
    Numbness, tingling or weakness in the arms or legs can be a sign of CES, myelopathy, a severely herniated disc, or other serious conditions.
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
    When back pain is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, it may be a sign of a serious medical condition such as cancer. Symptoms of a spinal tumor include back pain that worsens at night, loss of appetite, neurological symptoms, such as weakness or numbness in the arms or legs, nausea or vomiting, and fever.
  • Severe abdominal pain
    Back pain rarely wraps around to the abdomen. When it does, it may be a sign of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The pain is typically severe enough that standing up straight is difficult.
  • Fever
    When a fever accompanies back pain, it can be a sign of infection in the spine. A spinal infection can have serious complications, such as abscesses and neurological problems.

Individuals with one or more of these signs or symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.