Back Pain Symptoms Chart

Click here for a printable version of the red flag symptoms.

The vast majority of back problems improve on their own or with nonsurgical treatment. There are a few warning signs, however, that may indicate serious spinal problems. If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately:

  • Loss of control of the bowel or bladder and retention of urine may indicate damage to the spine's cauda equina nerves. The cauda equina is a bundle of nerves in the low back where the spinal cord ends. Damage to these nerves can be permanent if not treated immediately (within a day or so). See a spine specialist, or go to an emergency room if necessary.
  • Weakness or numbness in a leg or arm, especially if it is severe—and it is getting worse—also points to nerve damage. This includes "foot drop," a condition where the muscles of the leg and foot are too weak to raise the foot up as the individual attempts to walk. Again, nerve damage associated with these symptoms can be permanent if not treated immediately. This problem should be seen within 24 hours by a spine specialist.
  • Numbness, pain or tingling that radiates into the arm or leg is also a source for concern and should be seen within a few days by a spine specialist.
  • High fever accompanied by back pain may indicate a possible infection of the spine and should be treated within 24 hours.

When should you see a spine specialist?

Loss of control of bowel or bladder?
  EMERGENCY SYMPTOM

This is a SERIOUS emergency symptom (cauda equina) that needs to be treated immediately by a spine surgeon within 24 hours. If you experience these symptoms at night or on the weekend, go to the emergency room. If not treated quickly, the person may lose control over their bowel and bladder permanently.

Call our office at (903) 592-6000 or go to the emergency room.

Numbness, tingling or difficulty moving an arm or leg?
  EMERGENCY SYMPTOM

Numbness or weakness in the leg or foot, or arm or hand, is a SERIOUS disc-related symptom that is NOT appropriate for watchful waiting. Left untreated, the symptom can become permanent. You should see a spine specialist within 2 days.

If pain, weakness or numbness extends into the foot so that you are unable to lift your toe as you walk, this could lead to permanent weakness in the foot called Foot Drop if not address quickly.

Call our office at (903) 592-6000 to make an appointment.

Fever, drowsiness, severe headache, nausea, vomiting or unusual sensitivity to light
  EMERGENCY SYMPTOM

Other symptoms may be unrelated to a back or neck problem, like cervical meningitis or kidney infection. These can be serious. You should consult a physician immediately.

Call our office at (903) 592-6000 to make an appointment.

Severe trauma, fall or car accident?

Any time you fall, are in a car accident, or could have fractured a bone in your back, you should see a spine specialist immediately!

Call our office at (903) 592-6000 to make an appointment.

Pain after lifting or after aggressive exercise or sports activity?

Lifting or sports activities can strain muscles, ligaments & tendons, causing painful spasms. Extreme pain can require a spine specialist. Home remedies include anti-inflammatories like Advil/Nuprin, rest, ice and some simple stretching exercises. However, if symptoms don’t improve over 3 days, you need to be assessed by a spine specialist.

Call our office at (903) 592-6000 to make an appointment.

Pain that radiates into an arm or leg?

Pain that radiates into an arm below the elbow can imply a herniated disc in the neck, while pain that radiates into a leg below the knee can imply a herniated disc in the low back. Many times radiating pain can be treated non-surgically. To be safe, radiating pain should be seen by a spine specialist within 2 days.

Call our office at (903) 592-6000 to make an appointment.

DISCLAIMER: Those who self diagnose and self treat themselves do so at their own risk. We accept no responsibility for any problems that may result from the use or misuse of educational information intended to be helpful guidance.