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Symptoms

Back pain varies widely. Some symptoms may suggest that the back pain has a more serious cause. These include fever, recent trauma, weight loss, a history of cancer and neurological symptoms, such as numbness, weakness or incontinence (involuntary loss of urine). Back pain usually is accompanied by other symptoms that may help point to its cause. For example:

  • Back sprain or strain Back pain typically begins on the day after heavy exertion. Muscles in the back, buttocks and thighs are often sore and stiff. The back may have areas that are sore when touched or pressed.

  • Fibromyalgia In addition to back pain, there are usually other areas of pain and stiffness in the trunk, neck, shoulders, knees and elbows. Pain may be either a general soreness or a gnawing ache, and stiffness is often worst in the morning. People usually complain of feeling abnormally tired, especially of waking up tired, and they have specific areas that are painful to touch, called tender points.

  • Degenerative arthritis of the spine Together with back pain, there is stiffness and trouble bending over, which usually develops over many years.

  • Inflammatory arthritis, including ankylosing spondylitis and related conditions In these disorders, there is pain in the lower back, together with morning stiffness in the back, hips or both. There also can be pain and stiffness in the neck or chest or an extremely tired feeling. Other features may include psoriasis, eye pain and redness, or diarrhea, depending on the specific disorder causing back pain. This group of diseases is a relatively rare cause of back pain.

  • Osteoporosis This common condition is characterized by thinned, weakened bones that fracture easily. It is most common in postmenopausal women. When vertebrae become compressed because of fracture, posture may become stooped over or hunched along with back pain. Osteoporosis is not painful unless a bone fractures.

  • Cancer in the spinal bones or nearby structures Back pain is consistent and may become worse when you are lying down. Numbness, weakness or tingling of the legs that continues to get worse. If cancer spreads to spinal nerves that control the bladder and bowel, there may be bowel or bladder incontinence (loss of control).

  • Protruding disk People with significant disk disease sometimes have severe pain in the lower back. If a disk compresses a nerve, the pain may spread down one leg. The pain gets worse during bending or twisting.

  • Spinal stenosis Pain, numbness and weakness affect the back and legs. Symptoms get worse when you are standing or walking, but are relieved by sitting or leaning forward.

  • Pyelonephritis People with a kidney infection typically develop sudden, intense pain just beneath the ribs in the back that may travel around the side toward the lower abdomen or sometimes down to the groin. There also can be a high fever, shaking chills and nausea and vomiting. The urine may be cloudy, tinged with blood or unusually strong or foul-smelling. There may be additional bladder related symptoms, such as the need to urinate more often than normal or pain or discomfort during urination.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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