Low back pain – acute : Symptoms & Signs, Diagnosis & Tests

Symptoms & Signs

You may feel a variety of symptoms if you’ve hurt your back. You may have a tingling or burning sensation, a dull achy feeling, or sharp pain. Depending on the cause, you also may have weakness in your legs or feet.

Low back pain can vary widely. The pain may be mild, or it can be so severe that you are unable to move.

Depending on the cause of your back pain, you may also have pain in your leg, hip, or bottom of your foot.

Diagnosis & Tests

When you first see your doctor, you will be asked questions about your back pain, including how often it occurs and how severe it is. Your doctor will try to determine the cause of your back pain and whether it is likely to quickly get better with simple measures such as ice, mild painkillers, physical therapy, and proper exercises. Most of the time, back pain will get better using these approaches.

Questions will include:

  • Is your pain on one side only or both sides?
  • What does the pain feel like? Is it dull, sharp, throbbing, or burning?
  • Is this the first time you have had back pain?
  • When did the pain begin? Did it start suddenly?
  • Did you have a particular injury or accident?
  • What were you doing just before the pain began? Were you lifting or bending? Sitting at your computer? Driving a long distance?
  • If you have had back pain before, is this pain similar or different? In what way is it different?
  • Do you know the cause of previous episodes of back pain?
  • How long does each episode of back pain usually last?
  • Do you feel the pain anywhere other than your back, like your hip, thigh, leg or feet?
  • Do you have any numbness or tingling? Any weakness or loss of function in your leg or elsewhere?
  • What makes the pain worse? Lifting, twisting, standing, or sitting for long periods of time?
  • What makes you feel better?
  • Are there any other symptoms present? Weight loss? Fever? Change in urination? Change in bowel habits?

During the physical exam, your doctor will try to pinpoint the location of the pain and figure out how it affects your movement. You will be asked to:

  • Sit, stand, and walk. While walking, your doctor may ask you to try walking on your toes and then your heels.
  • Bend forward, backward, and sideways.
  • Lift your legs straight up while lying down. If the pain is worse when you do this, you may have sciatica, especially if you also feel numbness or tingling in one of your legs.

Your doctor will also move your legs into different positions, including bending and straightening your knees. All the while, the doctor is assessing your strength as well as your ability to move.

To test nerve function, the doctor will use a rubber hammer to check your reflexes. Touching your legs in many locations with a pin, cotton swab, or feather tests your sensory nervous system (how well you feel). Your doctor will ask you to speak up if there are areas where the sensation from the pin, cotton, or feather is duller.

Most people with back pain recover within 4 – 6 weeks. Therefore, your doctor will probably not order any tests during the first visit. However, if you have any of the symptoms or circumstances below, your doctor may order imaging tests even at this initial exam:

  • Accident or injury
  • Fever
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness
  • Pain that has lasted longer than one month
  • Weight loss
  • You are over 65
  • You have had cancer or have a strong family history of cancer

In these cases, the doctor is looking for a tumor, infection, fracture, or serious nerve disorder. The symptoms above are clues that one of these conditions may be present. The presence of a tumor, infection, fracture, or serious nerve disorder will change how your back pain is treated.

Tests that might be ordered include an x-ray, CT scan of the lower spine, or MRI of the lower spine.

Hospitalization, traction,or spinal surgery should only be considered if nerve damage is present or the condition fails to heal after a prolonged period.

Many people benefit from physical therapy. Your doctor will determine whether you need to see a physical therapist and can refer you to one in your area. The physical therapist will begin by using methods to reduce your pain. Then, the therapist will teach you ways to prevent getting back pain again.

If your pain lasts longer than one month, your primary care doctor may send you to see either an orthopedist (bone specialist) or neurologist (nerve specialist).


Review Date : 8/3/2010
Reviewed By : Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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