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Back Pain

Updated 13 May 2019

Know when your backache is a symptom of a serious medical condition

Backache can have a variety of causes, not all of them injury-related. Here’s when backache can signify an underlying medical problem.

Back pain can be acute, recurrent or chronic and can appear anywhere along the spine. Most cases of backache are acute, resulting from injury, poor posture or strain. They usually resolve themselves within a couple of days and usually aren't tied to a medical condition. There are, however, exceptions.

Sometimes lower back pain is not a specific condition, but a symptom of something else. Here are five cases when backache is caused by another underlying issue:

1. Certain types of cancer

Although rare, pain may be the first symptom of cancers like bone cancer. A dull, persistent backache could signal cancer of the spine, colon, rectum or ovaries, but when pain occurs, it usually means that the cancer has already spread, and would have been accompanied by other symptoms. If you experience a persistent backache not the result of injury or any other explainable cause, it’s best to talk to your doctor.

2. Ankylosing spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes a type of arthritis that leads to lower back pain and a loss of mobility in the spine, as your body’s reaction to inflammation causes a build-up of calcium where ligaments attach to the bone.

Persistent lower back pain is usually one of the first signs of this disease, as it causes inflammation in the lower region of the spine. This inflammation will also lead to back stiffness, especially after a long period of rest. As the condition progresses, the stiffness and immobility moves up towards the cervical region of the spine.

3. Spinal infection

A spinal infection can be caused by bacteria or fungi and can either follow invasive surgery or occur spontaneously, especially in those with a weakened immune system or poor nutrition. Besides pain that occurs with spine movement, someone with a spine infection will also experience headache, neck stiffness, chills and fever. It’s important to seek help from your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of these symptoms.  

4. Kidney pain

It’s often hard to distinguish between kidney pain and back pain, as the kidneys are located in the lower back; you will, however, experience a deeper pain and it will be situated higher up towards the ribs.

Kidney pain is caused by conditions such as a urinary tract infection, kidney stones or infection of the kidney. You may also experience other symptoms such as bladder pain, trouble urinating, nausea and vomiting if your kidneys are the problem.

5. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage between the joints and bone starts to degenerate, causing pain. Osteoarthritis affects the back as the cartilage between the joints and the discs of the lower back starts wearing down. This will mainly cause persistent stiffness and pain

When should you immediately contact your doctor?

Some cases of backache improve without any intervention, but there are times when you need to see a medical professional as soon as possible:  

  • When you experience incontinence and numbness in the lower part of your body. This can signify nerve damage.
  • When a forceful accident causes a significant amount of trauma, and it could be a fracture.
  • When you develop a sudden fever. 

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