Back pain affects 1 in 5 people, causing more disabilities than any other medical condition globally. The United States alone sees 2.6 million emergency department visits for back pain each year. While most episodes of lower back pain resolve on their own or benefit from conservative treatment, severe cases may require emergency care.
Knowing the signs of a serious problem, can ensure you or a family member receive much needed care in the event of an emergency. Emergency rooms are open 24/7, and staffed with highly trained specialists that can quickly diagnose and treat your symptoms. If your back pain becomes severe and indicates a medical emergency, do not delay an evaluation and treatment.
Symptoms of Low Back Injury
Lower back pain can range from mild to severe. In more advanced cases, it may affect activities of daily living and your ability to get around. As there are many causes of low back pain, symptoms may present differently for everyone. The most common characteristic of low back include:
- Dull, aching pain
- Sharp or stabbing pain
- Pain that travels to the buttocks, legs, and feet
- Numbness or tingling into the legs and feet
- Pain that is worse after prolonged sitting or standing
- Pain that feels better when changing positions
- Pain that is worse after waking up and better after moving around
Back pain may slowly develop over time or occur immediately after an injury. Pain may also come and go or remain constant. If your back pain does not resolve or gets worse, you may need an evaluation and treatment.
Risk Factors for Low Back Pain
Back pain can happen at all ages. However, certain risk factors may put you at greater risk for developing back pain. These include:
- Age – Individuals over the age of 40 are more likely to develop low back pain.
- Lack of exercise – Loss of muscle and core strength make your spine more prone to injury.
- Excess weight – Extra weight places more stress on the spine and joints.
- Diseases – Conditions like cancer can cause low back pain.
- Improper lifting – Lifting with your back instead of your legs can lead to injury.
- Psychological conditions – People with depression and anxiety have been shown to have a greater risk for low back pain.
- Smoking – Smoking decreases blood flow to the spine and increases the risk for osteoporosis.
Causes of Lower Back Pain
There are many causes of low back pain, but most causes are due to a mechanical issue of the spine or soft-tissue injuries. Auto collisions, sports injuries, and poor posture are common causes that lead to injury of the spine and surrounding tissue. Lifting heavy objects may also cause an immediate back injury. The most common conditions that cause low back pain include:
- Strains and sprain
- Disk problems
- Structural problems
While conservative at-home treatments may help reduce the symptoms of your lower back pain, many of the conditions above require medical intervention to address the source of the problem. If your symptoms become severe and persist, do not delay medical treatment.
When to Go to the ER
When a concerning injury, symptom, or sign related to back pain occurs, it is important to seek immediate medical attention. If you are experiencing one or more of the symptoms below, it is recommended to go to the emergency room urgently for an evaluation and treatment.
- Sudden loss of feeling in one or both legs, groin, genital area, and/or buttocks
- Unable to stand or walk
- Cannot control bowel movements
- Difficulty in urinating or uncontrolled bladder
- Intolerable pain in the low back and/or legs
- Pain radiates into the front of abdomen
- Loss of consciousness
- Back pain that follows trauma, such as a auto collision, sports injury, or fall
- Sudden back pain with known risk factors of fracture or osteoporosis
How Emergency Rooms Treat Low Back Pain
In the event of extreme back pain, do not drive yourself to the emergency room. Symptoms of numbness and loss of limb function may impair your ability to drive safely. If you are with someone that loses consciousness as a result of lower back pain, call 911 immediately.
When arriving in the emergency department, you’ll meet with a nurse who will ask you about your symptoms to determine the severity of your back pain. After gathering a health history and learning about your back pain, the ER doctor will meet with you to perform a physical exam to assess your function and range of motion. To help diagnose the cause of your back pain, your physician may also order testing. These may include:
- CT scan
- Electromyography (EMG)
After an evaluation, your doctor will likely prescribe lower level pain medications and/or muscle relaxers. Stronger pain medications, such as opioids and benzodiazepines, are usually only prescribed for extreme cases of back pain. Emergency department physicians are not specialized in pain management and musculoskeletal injuries, so the ER physician may refer you to your primary care physician or an orthopedic specialist.
Emergency departments help to stabilize low back pain, but they do not offer long-term treatment. While you may experience pain relief after visiting the ER, the underlying condition rarely resolves on its own and requires further medical treatment. After visiting the emergency room, always contact your primary care physician for a follow-up evaluation and treatment.
Emergency Care at East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital
Back pain is common, but it shouldn’t interfere with your life. When symptoms become severe and intolerable, emergency departments can deliver fast and effective care to relieve your symptoms.
If you or a loved one experience a medical crisis, East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital’s emergency department offers 24/7 care for back pain and other conditions. Staffed with board-certified physicians and advanced treatment options, our emergency department consistently delivers high-quality and effective care.
For questions and non-emergencies, please call (323) 268-5514.