When Should I Go to the ER for Back Pain?

Lower back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide, with 31 million Americans suffering from this condition at any given time. With the exception of back pain caused by a traumatic injury, most back pain doesn’t require emergency treatment. However, there are times when your back pain may be a symptom of another illness — such as kidney stones or kidney infections — that does necessitate a trip to the ER.

You should seek immediate treatment for back pain accompanied by:

  • High fever
  • History of infection
  • History of port or IV use
  • Problems or changes in bowel movements or urine
  • Numbness in the “saddle” area
  • Muscle weakness in extremities, such as being unable to walk or dragging a foot

Follow these 7 tips to give your aching back a break.

  • TURN, DON’T TWIST. When lifting heavy objects, bend your legs, lift and turn your entire body, including your feet and legs. Twisting can damage vertebral discs, which are the little cushions between the bones in your spine.
  • KICK THE HABIT. Did you know that smoking is bad for your back? In addition to causing heart and lung disease, smoking can hasten vertebral disc damage, causing them to break down even faster.
  • MOVE IT OR LOSE IT. Mild back injuries and strains actually benefit from gentle movement, such as walking, to help them heal. Lying in bed for just 48 hours can start to weaken back muscles, so get up and get going.
  • SNOOZE SUPPORTED. Sleeping on your stomach or with pillows propped under your neck can contribute to back pain. Better back support positions include on your back with a pillow under bent knees and your head and shoulders slightly supported or on your side with a pillow between bent knees.
  • LIGHTEN YOUR LOAD. Whether it’s a purse, backpack, briefcase or even a wallet, carry only what you absolutely need for that day. Hold heavy items close to your core and use your legs, not your back, to pick them up and set them down.
  • DON’T SIT ALL DAY. If your job requires you to sit all day, get up and walk around for a few minutes as often as you can — every 20 minutes is ideal. Set a reminder on your smartphone or smartwatch. Readjusting your chair when you return — even just a little — can help prevent muscle stiffness from sitting in the exact same position all day.
  • LIFT ONE FOOT. If your job requires you to stand for long periods, place a block of wood or yoga block (about 4-6 inches in height) at your feet and alternate placing one foot on it to relieve static strain on your spine.

Most back pain will resolve on its own in three to six weeks. If yours doesn’t or is so severe it interferes with your normal daily activities, make an appointment to see your doctor.

If you are having a medical emergency, call 911.