Click here for a printable version of the red flag symptoms.
The vast majority of back problems improve on their own or with nonsurgical treatment. There are a few warning signs, however, that may indicate serious spinal problems. If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Loss of control of the bowel or bladder and retention of urine may indicate damage to the spine's cauda equina nerves. The cauda equina is a bundle of nerves in the low back where the spinal cord ends. Damage to these nerves can be permanent if not treated immediately (within a day or so). See a spine specialist, or go to an emergency room if necessary.
Weakness or numbness in a leg or arm, especially if it is severe—and it is getting worse—also points to nerve damage. This includes "foot drop," a condition where the muscles of the leg and foot are too weak to raise the foot up as the individual attempts to walk. Again, nerve damage associated with these symptoms can be permanent if not treated immediately. This problem should be seen within 24 hours by a spine specialist.
Numbness, pain or tingling that radiates into the arm or leg is also a source for concern and should be seen within a few days by a spine specialist.
High fever accompanied by back pain may indicate a possible infection of the spine and should be treated within 24 hours.
Here's an encouraging back fact: 80 percent of the time, back and neck pain is simply a result of strain or soft tissue injury. In many of these simple cases of back or neck strain, your condition will improve with specialized exercises, rest, and anti-inflammatory medicine. Other times, you may need to see a doctor, perhaps even as soon as possible. Briefly, here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind about your back or neck problems: