Our backs are one of the most problem-prone areas of our bodies and the majority of us will deal with back pain at some point during our lives.  Unfortunately, some of us will deal with chronic or debilitating back pain.  This is particularly true for those of us who are tall, heavy, or do heavy labor.  Fortunately, back pain usually isn’t an emergency if it isn’t accompanied by any additional symptoms and usually resolves over time with over-the-counter medications and rest. However, there are situations in which your back pain is an emergency.

When Back Pain Becomes An Emergency

To first understand when back pain becomes an emergency, it’s important to also understand what can cause back pain in the first place. Some causes of back pain include the following:

  • Internal abnormalities: conditions like kidney stones, kidney infections, gallstones, pancreatitis, and female gynecological problems often include back pain.  
  • Muscular abnormalities: lifting heavy objects, or abrupt and strenuous sports injuries can cause the several muscles in the back to be injured and produce pain.
  • Skeletal abnormalities: injuries to the bones of the spine are rare unless we are involved in a significant trauma like a car crash or fall from a height, but when the bones are injured, severe, midline pain will be present.  Furthermore, there can be injury to the spinal cord when the bones of the spine are injured.
  • Joint abnormalities: one of the most common reasons for chronic back pain is an injured disk, which is the flexible cushion between the vertebrae.  Occasionally, a badly injured disk can cause injury to the spinal cord.
  • Skin abnormalities: skin problems causing back pain are mostly limited to shingles, which is a painful rash that develops spontaneously in those of us who have had chicken pox in the past.  Usually, the back pain precedes the rash so it can be confused with other causes.

With the many reasons for back pain, and the overlapping symptoms, it can be difficult for us to determine the cause of back pain and whether it is an emergency or not.  However, there are certain symptoms, that when accompanying back pain, necessitate a trip to the emergency room:

  • Sudden onset of moderate to severe pain or pain that is worsening
  • Pain caused by a high-velocity car accident, sports injury, or any other high-energy, traumatic injury
  • Fever
  • Bowel or bladder incontinence or retention
  • Difficulty walking or standing
  • Numbness in the legs
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Pain that radiates beyond your back, usually down the legs
  • Abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting

If you have any of the above symptoms along with back pain, you should seek medical attention to determine the cause of the pain.

When back pain is not an emergency

Over 72 million Americans, or approximately 30% of adults, suffer from chronic lower back pain according to a Harris poll. Although that number is disconcerting, most chronic back pain is not an emergency situation. Some back pain can also be temporary such as lifting improperly or with too much weight at the gym.

Non-emergency back pain may be helped with the following:

  • Rest (if caused by overexertion)
  • Light exercise (if caused by too little activity)
  • Application of heat
  • Stretching
  • Massage
  • Lifting heavy objects with our legs
  • Orthotic insoles for our shoes
  • Over-the-counter medications like Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen


Back pain may be an emergency but usually is not.  Fortunately, by watching for the symptoms above we can usually determine when a visit to the ER is necessary.  And as always, even if we don’t have the specific symptoms above, any time we feel back pain or any other symptom is an emergency, we should always seek emergency evaluation..

If you want to be seen by a medical professional for your back pain, give us a call, and we will get you the help you deserve.