Back pain signs and symptoms

Back pain is common, but how do you know if what you’re feeling is back pain or something else? We’ll tell you what to watch for.

From dull aches to shooting pain, back pain can take different forms depending on the individual. This can make it difficult for you to know if what you’re feeling is back pain or the symptom of another, underlying health problem. Consider keeping a detailed pain journal. It will be useful for you and your doctor (if you eventually need to see one). Once you’ve tracked a week or more of notes, look for typical symptoms.

Common signs and symptoms of back pain include:

  • Muscle ache

  • Shooting or stabbing pain

  • Pain that radiates down your leg

  • Pain that worsens with bending, lifting, standing or walking

  • Pain that improves with reclining

Next, determine if your pain is acute or chronic.

Acute, or short-term back pain, lasts a few days to a few weeks. Most lower back pain is acute. Fortunately, acute back pain typically does not result in loss of function and goes away on its own in a few days with self-care. However, in some cases it can take months for the symptoms to stop.

Chronic back pain, as the name suggests, usually lasts much longer than acute back pain. Chronic back pain is defined as lasting 12 weeks or more. Chronic back pain usually continues even after the initial injury or cause of acute low pain has been treated. According to the National Institute of Health, 20% of people with acute low back pain develop chronic back pain with persistent symptoms for 1 year.

The good news is that chronic back pain does not mean there is a serious medical problem with your back. However, treatment for chronic back pain is tricky. Treatment and surgery may help in some cases of chronic back pain, but not all.

Is your back pain serious?

Many cases of back pain, though uncomfortable, are not serious. However, some symptoms may be a warning sign that your back pain is the result of a serious medical issue.

These are some of the “red flag” symptoms that mean you should see a doctor immediately:

  • Back pain with fevers and chills, which could be a sign of a spinal infection

  • Night pain with weight loss, which could indicate a spinal tumor

  • Unsteady gait or incontinence with back pain, which is a common sign of a spinal cord issue

  • Any back pain that begins suddenly following a traumatic event, such as a car accident or fall, which could be a symptom of fractures, spinal cord injury or other serious conditions that need immediate medical attention

Back pain takes many unique forms, and it can be difficult to pinpoint the underlying issue and how to treat your pain. Find more resources on back pain in our articles on risk factors and at-home solutions for back pain. If you are unsure about the source of your back pain or experience severe back pain, talk to your doctor.