Seven ways to determine whether your lower back pain is serious – what to look for

Lower back pain is a common complaint – almost two out of three of us have lower back pain at some time in our lives. The cause isn’t normally serious and most of the time the pain improves within four to six weeks. But for some people, it can continue for months or even years, Bupa explains.

“You may find that you feel better sooner than this, in a few weeks,” notes the health body.

As it explains, back pain can be attributed to something as simple as picking up a heavy object awkwardly.

If the pain does particularly severe, gets worse over time or isn’t improving after four to six weeks, it may signal a more serious, however.

While the vast majority of cases do not signal a more serious cause, there is a certain criteria that can help to determine whether your back pain is a cause for concern.

According to Harvard Health, there are seven “red flag” questions that doctors typically use to determine the severity of a patient’s back pain.

These are:

  • Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer?
  • Have you experienced unexplained or unintentional weight loss?
  • Do you have an abnormal immune system (due to disease or medications)?
  • Do you use intravenous drugs?
  • Have you had a fever recently?
  • Have you had significant injury to your back recently?
  • Have you had bladder or bowel incontinence?

“These questions and a physical examination are intended to identify factors that would increase the chances that your back pain is due to infection, tumour, or other serious cause,” adds Harvard Health.

According to Bupa, there are also certain preconditions which, if met, require medical attention.

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Seek medical attention right away if you:

  • Have numbness or tingling around your bottom or genitals
  • Can’t control when you pee or can’t go at all
  • Lose control of your bowels
  • Are unsteady when you walk, your legs feel weak or your foot is dropping or dragging.

“These may be signs that the nerves at the bottom of your spine are being squashed,” warns Bupa.

It adds: “This is called cauda equina syndrome and needs urgent treatment.”

General tips to alleviate back pain

More often than not, lower back pain can be alleviated by making simple lifestyle adjustments.

One of the most important things you can do is to keep moving and continue with your normal activities as much as possible.

As the NHS explains, it used to be thought that bed rest would help you recover from a bad back, but it’s now known that people who remain active are likely to recover quicker.

Exercise can strengthen your muscles and improve your posture, both of which bring benefits to back pain.

“Simple back exercises and stretches can often help reduce back pain,” says the NHS.

According to Versus Arthritis, you should start off slowly and gradually increase the amount of exercise you do.

“You can also try taking some painkillers beforehand,” says the health body.

Over time, your back will get stronger and more flexible and this should reduce pain.

It’s advisable to choose a form of exercise that you enjoy as you’re more likely to stick to it, adds Versus Arthritis.

Exercises that may help include:

  • Swimming
  • Walking
  • Yoga or Pilates
  • Going to the gym.

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