Acute Low Back Pain: When is it Time to See a Specialist?



Back problems, including backaches, are among the most common reasons why patients see a specialist. In the US alone, about 65 million Americans report experiencing a recent episode of back pain. Furthermore, at least 8% of adults endure chronic or persistent back pain that limits their activities.

Acute low back pain is a very common condition. It can vary in intensity but it is not uncommon to be so severe patients seek immediate help in the emergency room or urgent care center. Fortunately, most episodes of back pain are benign and resolve within a short period of rest and gradual return to normal activities. Infrequently, acute back pain may represent a more serious medical issue that requires timely evaluation and intervention. 

Indeed, regardless of how common acute low back pain can be, its diagnosis and treatment can be quite tricky as there may be many factors involved. In this article, we aim to shed more light on this type of back pain. We’ll tackle the following topics: What are the causes of Acute Low Back Pain? What are the possible treatment options? And most importantly, when should you seek help from an orthopedic spine doctor?

What Are the Common Causes of Acute Low Back Pain?

There are many possible sources of acute low back pain but some of the most common are disc tear or herniation, nerve or spinal cord problems, and injuries. Let’s take a closer look at what could be causing your acute low back pain.

Disc Herniation

Classified as a degenerative back problem, disc herniations typically occur between the ages of 30-60 and often present as the gradual or sudden onset of aching or burning pain in the lower back, buttock, or hip area. The pain can become quite severe but usually resolves over 4-8 weeks. The pain is worse with activities especially bending, lifting, and twisting, as well as prolonged sitting, especially driving. Most episodes will improve with a short period of rest, prudent use of NSAIDs, and gradual increase in activity and mobility as symptoms allow.

Injuries

Accidents from playing sports, falls, or vehicular accidents can injure the ligaments, tendons, and muscles in and around your back. The spine may also be compressed, causing discs to herniate or rupture. These can all cause low back pain.

Spinal Stenosis

In the case of spinal stenosis, the spinal column narrows. As a result, there is pressure on the nerves and spinal cord within the spinal column. Spinal stenosis can occur in any part of the spine.

Osteoporosis

This is a degenerative disease wherein bone density and strength decrease progressively. Osteoporosis can cause painful fractures in the vertebrae.

Spondylosis

This condition refers to the general degeneration of a patient’s spine due to typical wear and tear. It may occur in the discs, joints, and vertebrae as a person ages.

Non-Spine Problems

Acute low back pain doesn’t always have something to do with the spine. There are also other non-spine or non-musculoskeletal problems that can cause lower back pain. These include kidney stones, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, tumors, and even pregnancy. 

Who is at Risk of Developing Low Back Pain?

Anybody can experience back pain. However, there are factors that may increase one’s risk for developing low back pain. These include:

  • Age

Most people begin experiencing low back pain at the age of 30 to 50. As a person grows older, they become more susceptible to degenerative conditions that cause backaches.

  • Fitness and activity level

Individuals who are not physically fit and less active are more at risk of developing conditions that cause back pain. This is because they may have weaker back and abdominal muscles that cannot properly support the spine. Furthermore, those who exercise a lot once a week while being sedentary during the rest of the week are also more likely to suffer back injuries compared to those who do moderate activities on a daily basis.

  • Weight

Being overweight or obese can also make you more susceptible to low back pain.

  • Genetics

Some conditions that cause low back pain are thought to be hereditary.

  • Lifestyle 

Did you know that smoking can also lead to back pain? It can restrict the flow or blood and oxygen to your discs, accelerating aging and degeneration. Furthermore, if your work requires heavy lifting, pulling, and pushing, you are also more susceptible to back injuries and diseases. People who also carry heavy items often are also highly likely to experience low back pain due to muscle fatigue. These include kids who carry heavy school bags. Bad posture due to working at a desk all day can also make you more at risk of experiencing back pain.

  • Psychological factors

Stress, depression, and other mental or psychological conditions can also affect a patient physically. Among the symptoms they may feel is low back pain.

What Are the Symptoms of Acute Low Back Pain?

As noted above, most episodes of back pain are related to degenerative conditions of the spine which gradually improve and can be treated with non-invasive modalities. Less frequently, back pain may represent a more serious condition such as infection, nerve injury, tumor, or other medical conditions requiring prompt treatment. The nature, location, and characteristics of the pain are very important factors that will help your physician assess the possible causes of your pain, and determine what further workup and treatment might be necessary.

These are some of the common symptoms of low back pain, some of which signal that a patient needs prompt medical attention.

  • Most benign, degenerative causes of back pain involve an aching or burning sensation in the lower back which gets worse with activities such as bending, lifting, twisting, and prolonged sitting. 
  • Furthermore, if the degenerative process irritates a nerve, the pain may radiate to the buttock, hip, and leg, and might include numbness or tingling
  • Severe disabling pain (especially pain at rest), weakness of the lower extremities, and/or constitutional symptoms such as fevers, night pain, or weight loss, are red flags that should prompt immediate and thorough workup with an orthopaedic spine specialist.

Severe and Acute Low Back Pain — When is it Time to See a Specialist?

If your back pain does not improve or if you have severe episodes of pain, you should immediately schedule a visit with your doctor or a certified and trusted orthopedic spine surgeon in your area. This is the only way for you to get the right diagnosis and eventually, the right treatment for your specific condition. The orthopedic doctor or surgeon will conduct a thorough evaluation of your symptoms and medical history. After their initial evaluation, they will require the necessary tests, which may include an X-ray, some blood work, and other examinations such as MRI if needed. The best spine surgeons in South Florida will be able to diagnose the cause of your pain, so you can be free of pain as soon as possible.

How is Low Back Pain Treated?

As mentioned above, you can only get proper treatment after you’ve been examined by a certified orthopedic doctor. However, to give you an idea, here are the typical treatment options that your doctor will recommend and prescribe:

Medication

Most episodes of acute low back pain improve with a short period of rest and with the help of the following medications that are designed to minimize and relieve pain:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen and ibuprofen
  • Analgesics including aspirin and acetaminophen
  • Muscle relaxants that can relax tight muscles
  • Topical pain relief products such as creams, ointments, sprays, and patches that can dull the sensation of pain

Physical Therapy and Exercises

Your doctor may also recommend undergoing physical therapy programs that will help strengthen your core muscle groups so they can properly support your spine and lower back. The physical therapist may then instruct spine exercises you can do at home to supplement the physical therapy routines.

Spinal Injections

Depending on your condition and diagnosis, your orthopedic doctor may suggest getting spinal injections. These injections are commonly infused with steroids, which are strong and effective anti-inflammatory agents. More severe low back pain episodes may best be treated by early intervention with steroid injections to reduce the acute inflammation associated with disc herniations. 

Back Surgery

When all non-surgical treatment options prove ineffective in improving or relieving a patient’s low back pain, the orthopedic doctor may finally recommend surgery. Although rare, disc herniations may fail to improve or worsen to include nerve injury. As a result, they may require surgical management, which is very effective and can be performed in an outpatient setting. There are a wide range of back surgery treatment options available for different conditions besides disc herniation. 

Consult a Spine Doctor to Get the Right Diagnosis and Treatment for Low Back Pain

You don’t have to live with a painful back. If you experience pain that does not improve or is severe in nature, it requires further evaluation and treatment. The most important step is obtaining a specific and accurate diagnosis from an orthopedic spine surgeon. 

If you live in Broward County or Palm Beach County and are looking for an orthopedic doctor, Dr. Matthew Hepler is your best option. He is a Board Certified Spine Surgeon with 20 years of experience and leading expertise in the operative and non-operative treatment of the spine. Check our website for further information on spine conditions and their treatment. You can also schedule an appointment at one of our facilities:

Let us help get you back to enjoying an active and healthy lifestyle! Contact us to learn more about our services.

The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.