Maybe you’ve had a pain in the neck for a day, or maybe your back’s been killing you for months. No matter how long you’ve suffered, you likely wrestle with the question of whether you should see a doctor.
The fact is that back and neck pain often clears up on its own with rest and, sometimes, at-home heat or ice treatment. But other times, medical attention is necessary.
8 questions to help you know whether to seek medical attention for neck or back pain
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you should consult your doctor for more information.
1. Do you also have a fever?
A fever could be unrelated to your neck or back pain, but it could also be a sign of a serious infection such as meningitis. Untreated infections can become life-threatening, so if you suspect one, call your doctor immediately.
2. Have you had cancer?
Sometimes pain is caused by tumors in your spine or pressing on your organs, nerves, or blood vessels. If you have a history of cancer, call your doctor to see if you should be checked out for tumors.
3. Are you over 50 and overweight?
Some back pain is related to obesity—and since people often get less physical exercise as they age, it can be important to address pain before it becomes debilitating. A pain-management doctor can work with you on a pain control plan, using a combination of physical therapy, weight management and other relevant treatments.
4. Do you have weak legs or bowel or bladder problems?
If you notice your legs getting progressively weaker, or if you are having trouble controlling your bowel or bladder, you should seek medical attention right away. Incontinence and/or progressive weakness in the leg or seat area may be symptoms of a serious condition.
5. Have you recently suffered an injury?
If you’ve had a fall, a car accident or another type of physical trauma, you should be checked out by a doctor. It's possible that your neck or back pain is the result of a spinal injury.
6. Does pain radiate down one leg?
Pain, numbness or an electrical sensation that travels down one leg is called sciatica. Sciatica can have several causes, ranging from a tight piriformis muscle to an irritation of a spinal root nerve. Frequently, sciatica can be treated by physical therapy and strengthening of the leg and core muscles. Pain or tingling in one leg can also be a symptom of spinal stenosis, or pressure on the spinal root nerve. A doctor will test for this while assessing your sciatica.
7. Does your pain get worse when you bend over?
If bending or flexing makes your pain worse, you may have a disc problem such as a bulging disc, herniated disc or degenerative disc disease.
8. Have you had your pain for longer than three weeks?
Even if you answered no to the above seven questions, you should make an appointment with your doctor if your pain has persisted for nearly a month. At this length, pain is considered chronic and can lead to other negative consequences. A doctor can work with you to develop a pain management program to help alleviate impacts on your lifestyle.