Should I be worried by my pain?

Low back pain worries many people. For some people it can be difficult not to imagine it is a symptom of something more serious. It is very important therefore to be aware that while low back pain is an enormously common symptom, serious underlying disease is not.


When heath care professionals ask questions, examine you, or do tests and scans, they are often looking for causes to help explain pain that they can reverse or improve. Rarely are serious or life threatening issues found, and its critical to realise this. Common findings include degenerative problems relating to facet joints, bone and discs.

Several particular pointers, called red flags, are recognised by health care professionals. These flags are specific symptoms or patterns that, if present, should make us think harder about the cause of pain, though. They do not mean there is a serious or life threatening problem, but may indicate a check-up, scan or even a blood test should be considered.

Think of these flags in the context of a headache. If your headache came on after a long day at work but was gone the next day that would be unlikely to worry you, although it wouldn’t be fun at the time. If that headache didn’t go away though, stayed for several days, or started after you banged your head on the way into work, that would probably be your flag to get a professional opinion and make sure you are ok. It doesn’t mean there is a problem really – but its worth getting checked out.

Back pain flags are there primarily to make sure the serious concerns like infection, fractures or cancer are not present. They can include symptoms like on-going fevers or temperatures, sustained pain that doesn’t get better at rest or symptoms such as numbness, and leg weakness. Sudden changes in function, being on some medications and having other medical issues can all raise flags too.

Recognising symptoms and seeking advice should make sure you are investigated properly and at the right time.

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