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Back Pain

How Serious Is Back Pain?

Last modified: 
20/03/2012 - 10:02

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

The seriousness of back pain depends on the cause. Tumor, infection, and fractures are serious problems but are rare. Cauda equina syndrome, in which the nerves in the lower part of the spinal canal are compressed for any reason (such as by a herniated disc) or because of spinal stenosis may result in permanent incontinence (inability to control urination) if the compression is not immediately relieved by surgery. In general, when first seeing a patient with back pain, physicians consider that the cause of the pain may be serious if:

  • It wakes a person from sleep.
  • It occurs in children (although many cases of back pain in children prove not to be serious).
  • It occurs along with an inability to control urine or stools.
  • It is accompanied by unexplained fever or weight loss
  • It occurs in someone with a history of cancer

But back pain may have long-term, adverse effects on the quality of one's life. While most causes of back pain are certainly not life threatening, chronic back pain can be life-altering. For many individuals who suffer from chronic back pain, the condition can certainly affect their lifestyle.

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.