Signs and Symptoms of Back Pain

Back pain can be constant or intermittent. Intensity of the pain can vary from a dull ache to searing agony and the onset may be sudden, with or without apparent reason, or gradual.

Most back pain resolves in a few days or weeks with or without treatment. However, some people have chronic pain that lasts months or years.

Severe pain lasting more than a few days without improvement may require medical attention. Anyone having difficulty passing urine; numbness in the back or genital area; numbness, pins and needles, or weakness in the legs; shooting pain down the leg; or unsteadiness when standing should see a physician immediately.

Localized pain is often described as aching, tight, stiff, sore, burning, throbbing, or pulling. The pain may worsen while bending, sitting, walking, or standing too long in one position. It may also be more prevalent at different times of the day, such as when a person wakes up in the morning.

Pinched nerves produce numbness or tingling, warm or cold sensations, and burning or stabbing pain that begins in the back and radiates down the leg (e.g., sciatica) or arm. Activities such as coughing, sneezing, or walking may increase pressure on the pinched nerve and aggravate the pain.

Compressed nerves cause numbness and weakness in the muscle associated with the nerve. The muscle may atrophy if the compression is not relieved. An infection affecting the spinal cord or nerves may produce fever and lethargy as well as symptoms of compression.

Publication Review By: Eric M. Schreier, D.O., F.A.A.P.M.R.,Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2000

Last Modified: 17 May 2011