August 26, 2019

Learn the difference between when back pain is typical soreness and when you might want to take action.

From yard work and housecleaning to workouts and fun, we pack a lot into our weekends. And come Monday morning we might wake up with an aching back. That can lead to the question of whether to check in with a physician, take action and treat back pain at home, or hope the pain will simply go away on its own as time goes by. We might also wonder if we can safely continue certain activities or if we need to back off for a bit.

We asked Byron Schneider, M.D., of the Vanderbilt Spine Center to give us some guidelines and help answer these important questions about the best time to see a doctor.

How common is back pain?

Most people, about 80 percent, will experience some type of back pain in their lives, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and back pain is one of the most common reasons people visit the doctor. Now, for the good news: “The vast majority of back pain is not medically serious,” Schneider said. In most cases, a physician’s role will be to help a patient get over the painful episode faster. That being said, the decision of whether to see a physician will be different for everyone and will likely depend on how much the symptoms are interfering with your ability to go about your daily activities.

When does it make sense to see a physician?

Schneider uses the example of an avid weekend golfer. The golfer may experience a little bit of pain or soreness every Monday after a regular Sunday golf game, he said, and that might be a normal occurrence. But for others, back pain might be impeding their golf games or even preventing them from hitting the course the following weekend. In that case, the back pain is interfering with their ability to do the things they want. “If it’s bothering you, and you want help to see if it can be less bothersome,” Schneider said, “that’s a good reason to see a spine specialist.”

Although the following symptoms aren’t a medical emergency, Schneider recommends talking to your physician or a spine specialist if:

  • You normally suffer intermittent back pain and a recent episode is lasting longer than usual.
  • Back pain has transitioned from being tolerable to interfering with the things you’d like to be doing.
  • You’re experiencing weakness, numbness or tingling in your lower extremities.
  • Pain begins shooting down your leg.

When is back pain a serious concern?

Back pain that is a serious concern is rare, Schneider said. However, certain severe symptoms will indicate the need to consult a physician immediately. These include paralysis of the legs, loss of control of the bladder or bowel, rapid weight loss or soaking through the bed sheets at night coupled with extreme back pain.

What can be done at home to ease back pain?

Schneider recommends over-the-counter analgesics, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to ease the pain, as long as a patient doesn’t have any medical conditions that prohibit their use.

He also suggests people work on strengthening and stretching their lumbar muscles for prevention of back pain and to ease the severity or frequency of discomfort. “It’s somewhat analogous to brushing your teeth,” Schneider said. “You don’t brush your teeth only when you get a cavity, you brush your teeth to avoid getting dental problems.”

Is continued physical activity OK during an episode of back pain?

Exercise can help you live better with back pain, according to the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “We know that physical activity, in general, is better for patients than inactivity,” Schneider said. “So do not be scared of doing things that are tolerable, even if they may feel a little uncomfortable.”

If you’re experiencing an acute episode of back pain, dialing back an activity for a day or two might help. For example, if you normally run five miles a day, cut back on the mileage, slow your pace, or go for a walk instead. But if the pain holds you back for more than just a few days, or you become hesitant or fearful of exercise or movement because it might cause you pain, you should see a physician. Schneider said a visit can help reassure you your favorite activities are safe.

Man suffering from lower back pain

The Vanderbilt Spine Center treats patients from across the Southeast for back pain, sciatica, whiplash and other conditions of the spine, offering a full range of treatments including non-surgical options. If surgery is necessary, the Vanderbilt Spine Center team provides an extraordinary level of experience and expertise for each patient’s needs.

Learn more

Byron Schneider, M.D., is an assistant professor in physical medicine and rehabilitation. His interests include non-operative management of the spine with a focus on fluoroscopic interventional spine procedures.