Is it Time to Visit a Back Specialist for Your Low Back Pain?

When Self-treatment Is No Longer Enough

Peer Reviewed

Lower Back PainThis Patients’ Guide has described the many steps you can take to treat your lower back pain and prevent it from coming back. From improving your sleep habits to finding safe ways to exercise your back, you can take control of your back health and work to eliminate low back pain.

While you may have called your primary care doctor for advice about specific therapies or medications, there may come a point when you would benefit from a comprehensive back exam, or from seeing a back pain specialist (such as an orthopaedic surgeon, neurosurgeon, or pain management specialist who focuses on back pain). How do you know when it is time to see a specialist? You should seek additional help if:

  • your pain is severe. Only you know your body and your tolerance for pain. What is “normal” for one person is not normal for everyone. If your lower back pain is excruciating, seek immediate medical attention. If your primary care physician is unavailable and your pain feels unbearable, head to the nearest emergency room.
  • you have weakness in the legs or feet. If you begin to experience weakness in one or both of your legs, or if your foot drags behind you when you walk, you should contact a spine specialist immediately (or go to the ER).
  • you have bowel or bladder problems. Severe spinal problems may result in a loss of bowel or bladder control. Alert your doctor if you have trouble starting or controlling urination or bowel movements, or if you lose feeling while on the toilet.
  • your pain interrupts your sleep. If back pain prevents you from falling asleep or consistently wakes you up during the night, it is time to seek more help.
  • you experience medication side effects. Over-the-counter medications, complementary and alternative treatments, and prescription medications can all be helpful in reducing lower back pain. However, the drugs can cause debilitating side effects, and taking them together can cause dangerous interactions. Tell your doctor if you experience side effects; you may be able to switch to an equally effective alternative that does not cause additional problems.
  • your pain won’t go away. Many times, back pain following a strain or injury goes away on its own with proper care and treatment in a week or so. However, if your pain does not respond to over-the-counter medications, massage, or rest, your injury may be more serious than you think. Keep a journal of your pain to help you track the severity and longevity of your pain, and visit a specialist if it persists.

Low back pain is highly treatable at home with proper self-care, exercise, and lifestyle changes. However, in some cases, it may require serious evaluation by your primary care physician, or a medical professional who specializes in back pain. Make sure you fully describe your symptoms and self-treatment practices (especially the medications you are taking) to your doctor, since he or she may refer you to a specialist. As with any condition, lower back pain benefits from early treatment, so contact a medical professional as soon as you notice any of the more serious back pain symptoms listed above.

Updated on: 10/21/16
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How to Sleep with Back Pain
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
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How to Sleep with Back Pain

Proper sleeping habits are an important part of treating low back pain. Read this article for information on how to protect your back while you sleep.
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