Low back pain: Signs of serious problems

Photo of an orthopedic surgeon and a patient with low back pain (Creatas Images / Creatas / Thinkstock)

Low back pain usually doesn't have a clear cause, isn't dangerous and goes away on its own. Only rarely is it caused by a serious problem such as a broken bone or infection. It is often possible to tell based on particular symptoms.

The following may be signs of a serious health problem. If you have low back pain together with one or more of these symptoms, you should have a doctor give you a careful examination:

  • Low back pain that radiates down to below your knee or into a foot and is accompanied by numbness, tingling or paralysis: This kind of radiating pain may be a sign of potential damage to nerves that leave the spinal cord at the base of the spine.
  • Problems with urination or bowel movements: These symptoms, as well as numbness around the buttocks (perineum and anus), can be signs of potential damage to the nerves in the tailbone area. This is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Fever or chills: Both of these symptoms may occur in connection with a spinal infection.
  • Unexplained weight loss, physical weakness and pain that gets worse when you lie on your back: These symptoms may be a sign of a tumor. This may be a benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous) tumor around the spine, or metastases that have spread from malignant tumors elsewhere, for example breast cancer or prostate cancer.
  • Low back pain after an accident.

These symptoms don't necessarily mean that you have a serious condition. The likelihood of it being something serious can only be properly assessed after seeing a doctor. Your overall health will play a role here, as well as other aspects like your age or risk factors for certain diseases such as osteoporosis.