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When should I see a doctor about lumbar back pain?

With lumbar back pain being so prevalent, it’s a dilemma you are likely to face—should you go see a doctor for the pain, or should you wait it out at home? Most cases of back pain will resolve with time, but as a spine surgeon, I think it’s important that people understand when a visit to the doctor is warranted. Sometimes it may be to help you avoid a potentially dangerous situation; other times it may be to prevent you from suffering in pain unnecessarily. Here is some information to help you make that decision.

 

You can try treating mild back pain at home.

If you develop mild low back pain without any other symptoms, there are a few home remedies you can try. Just like their name implies, anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen help decrease inflammation in the body, improving pain and making it easier for you to move around. For best results, be sure to take the medication regularly as directed to allow it to build up in your system.

Rest for the short term is OK, but we no longer recommend complete bed rest for back pain like in the past. It’s better to try to stay active. Just take it easy and don’t do anything to exacerbate your symptoms.   

You can apply ice or heat to your back, as well. There are a lot of different theories on when to use ice versus heat, leaving people confused about which one to try. I believe it’s actually user-dependent, so I tell my patients to choose whichever method brings them the most relief.

 

Persistent lumbar back pain or additional symptoms should be evaluated by a doctor.

If your back pain continues or if it’s severe, it’s time to see a doctor. Between a medical history, physical exam, and imaging studies or other testing, we can often figure out what’s causing your pain and develop a treatment plan.

There are also times where it’s better to skip the home care and make an appointment instead. Though this is rarely the case, back pain can be caused by more serious things, such as infection, fractures, or cancer. It can also be related to pressure on your spinal nerves or spinal cord. The sooner we can detect and treat these conditions, the better. Be sure to contact a doctor if you have lumbar back pain accompanied by any of the following:


  • Traumatic accident or injury

  • Fever

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Pain that doesn’t improve with rest

  • History of cancer or weakened immune system

  • Numbness or tingling in your extremities or genital region

  • Changes in bowel or bladder control

  • Pain or weakness in your extremities

  • Foot drop

 

There are many options for treating lumbar back pain.

Under the care of a great doctor, you have a multitude of treatment options to explore. Even better, with advances in spine medicine, lumbar back pain can often be treated without surgery. We have amazing technology to help us locate and treat your back pain right at its source using minimally invasive techniques.

Similarly, if surgery becomes necessary, there are a growing number of minimally invasive surgical procedures. This results in smaller incisions, less trauma to surrounding tissues, fewer complications, and quicker recoveries.

I understand my patients don’t want to go to the doctor if they don’t have to, but I also want them to realize that if their back pain is preventing them from living a life they enjoy, there is something they can do about it. Schedule a consultation with a spine specialist to explore your options, so we can get you back where you belong.

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Grant D. Shifflett, MD

About the author

Grant D. Shifflett, MD Dr. Grant D. Shifflett is a fellowship-trained orthopedic spine surgeon. Handpicked by Dr. Robert S. Bray Jr. to join DISC Sports & Spine Center, Dr. Shifflett specializes in the application of minimally invasive and microsurgical techniques to the entire spectrum of cervical, thoracic and lumbar spinal conditions, from the simple to the most complex. Whether treating a patient with chronic pain or an acute injury, his ultimate goal is to restore function and quality of life with minimal tissue disruption. Read more articles by Grant D. Shifflett, MD.