If you have ever suffered from a back injury, you know that the smallest of movements have the potential to cause you intense discomfort. With a tweaked back, everyday activities like getting comfortable on the couch, sitting up in your chair, entering and exiting your car, walking to and from the bathroom, and even turning your head can be excruciating!
We’ve all experienced it. And we’ve all fought through it. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. How do you know if the backache you’re feeling is just a pulled muscle? You’ll take a few aspirin and layer on the IcyHot, and you’ll be good, right?
While most back pain isn’t serious, if you aren’t aware of the signs, you could be misinterpreting the dead giveaways of a more dire nervous system issue— an issue that, if left untreated, can have grave consequences.
In order to better understand the different levels of back pain, you should first understand the different types of pain you can experience.
The Cleveland Clinic defines acute pain as pain that “comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific.” Acute pain is intense, sharp, and most of the time does not stick around for longer than six months after treatment. Because it has a diagnosable, obvious, underlying cause, once that cause is remedied, the ache stops. Life returns to normal. However, proper treatment performed by a medical professional is required to ensure that the condition never returns or worsens.
Chronic pain, on the other hand, is usually dull, constant, and lasts longer than six months. While it, too, can be caused by a physical ailment, this type of ache does not disappear once the injury is healed. The Cleveland Clinic goes on to say that “[chronic] pain signals remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months or years.” And, unfortunately, there are cases where chronic pain is present without a prior injury or body damage: the phantom aches begin as nerves misfire and lingers without reason.
Because acute pain can become chronic pain and chronic pain can feel like acute pain, it can be hard to decipher when it is time to pay closer attention. Dr. Douglas Dickson, orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Kavita Trivedi, osteopathologist and rehab specialist, compiled a list of “5 Signs Your Back Pain Might Be an Emergency”. Their list includes:
- Feeling a sharp, sudden pain rather than a consistent ache. It could be a stretched muscle in need of a few days of rest, but it could also be an internal organ trying to signal that something is terribly wrong. Oftentimes, things like septic UTIs or appendicitis will manifest in pangs, and both can be deadly without speedy medical intervention.
- A scattered pain that travels to the glutes or legs. This may be a sign of nerve damage, a herniated disc, bone degeneration, and various sciatic nerve disorders.
- Weakness in the limbs. This may be due to a compressed nerve or misaligned disc in the spine, but it has also been known to warn of a stroke.
- Inability to control the bowels or bladder. It may point to nerve compression or a spine infection.
- Numb or static feeling in the groin or glutes. These sensations may indicate a nerve or spine condition.
If you experience any of these symptoms, it may be time to start taking your back pain more seriously! If you suspect that your pain is a health emergency, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and schedule a doctor’s visit. After all, you’re only as strong as your spine.
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