Better Me

When to See a Doctor About Your Back and Neck Pain

How many of us are living with back and neck pain? Perhaps your upper back hurts after every long day at work. Maybe you wake up most mornings with a stiff neck. Or your pain shows up randomly and severely. Each person’s spine is unique to their body and their daily routine. But too many of us shrug off the pain (literally) as a fact of life.

How can you know if your back or neck pain is severe enough to seek medical help?

We spoke with Venkat Ganapathy, MD, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in spinal surgery at Banner – University Medicine Orthopedics Clinic in Tucson, AZ. He remarked that your “bad back” isn’t something you should just have to live with. Putting off treatment could be a sign of something serious or lead to more severe issues down the road. He outlined a list of common symptoms, breaking them down into categories of severity.

Schedule a visit with an expert if you:

  • Experience mild to moderate back pain for more than a few days
  • Have mild to moderate neck pain lasts for more than a few days
  • Have lessened or no feeling in areas of your body
  • Have pain extending into your extremities
  • Have leg or arm weakness (poor grip strength, dropping things, lack of feeling, or legs giving away)
  • Feel leg heaviness or tiredness with walking
  • Experience dexterity issues such as difficulty writing or in hobbies like crocheting
  • Have trouble walking (unsteadiness) or exercising normally
  • Feel persistent pain following an injury

Go to an emergency department if you:

  • Lose control of one or more extremities
  • Have back or neck pain with fever, chills, changes in appetite or weight loss
  • Experience lack of bladder control, difficulty urinating or bowel control
  • Are having trouble sleeping due to severe pain

Putting off your visit is a mistake

“Constant back and neck pain aren’t just part of getting older,” said Dr. Ganapathy. “Something is causing your pain and if it’s not addressed in a timely manner it could lead to chronic pain that could affect your life in the future. You may be able to live with the pain now, but that’s not a good idea.”

As the pain grows, it could affect your quality of life, holding you back from the things you love and making you more sedentary. Dr. Ganapathy explained, “the longer you live with weakness or pain, the more unpredictable your recovery plan will be.” Holding off on treatment only serves to introduce more complications that will compound your condition.

Don’t be embarrassed of your pain

Unfortunately, many people live with the stubborn notion that admitting to back and neck pain is a sign of weakness. Dr. Ganapathy offered a reassurance to anyone suffering from lingering pain, explaining that they have no reason to be ashamed. In fact, “toughing it out” can only serve to make your condition more difficult to manage. There are many possible solutions that could resolve your back and neck pain, including gentle stretches, physical therapy, lifestyle changes, medication and surgery. In many cases, surgery can be avoided with timely assessment and treatment. Your doctor will help you decide which approach will help you feel better and get back to normal life.

To learn more about your back and neck pain, take our free back and neck pain assessment.

Talk to a health care professional to learn more about how to prevent neck pain.

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