Back Pain: Notice All Your Symptoms & When It's Serious

Understand your back pain symptoms with Buoy, including 10 causes and common questions concerning your back pain.

Back Pain Symptoms

Your morning alarm rings, and as you get out of bed, you find you can barely stand up straight — not without clutching your back in pain. Back pain is extremely common, affecting tens of millions of Americans every year. Usually, back pain symptoms are short-lived, due to a minor strain or pull. In other cases, back pain can indicate a serious illness.

Common characteristics of back pain

Back pain may be described by the following characteristics.

  • Persistent aching and stiffness, all along the spine
  • Pain and aches after sitting a long time
  • Sore muscles in the lower back
  • Tight lower back muscles
  • Feeling like you can't stand up straight
  • A deep ache in the lower back
  • Walking hunched over
  • Pain when trying to lift or reach for items: You may experience intense pain if you try to lift anything heavy or pick up an object off the ground.
  • Sharp pain on the side of the back, toward the ribs
  • Cramps in the back muscles
  • Back pain that radiates all down the lower back into the buttock area: This type of pain usually radiates all the way down into the calf (sciatica).

Other things to consider

Trying to identify all of your back pain symptoms is important. Every detail you can think of can help determine the cause and treatment plan more effectively. You should try to determine the following and alert your physician if your back pain worsens or persists.

  • How long you have been in pain?
  • Do you remember what you were doing when it started?
  • Is it lingering or getting worse?

Symptoms of serious conditions

Many more serious health issues can cause back pain, such as a heart attack, kidney failure, kidney problems, ruptured or herniated discs, a severe kidney infection, or a nerve condition called sciatica. Your back pain may be due to more serious conditions if you also experience the following.

  • Shooting pains down one leg: Typically caused by sciatica
  • Numbness in the legs
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Burning urination and fever: This can indicate a kidney infection that has become chronic or advanced.
  • Pain on both sides of the lower back accompanied by a change in the taste of food/metallic taste in the mouth: These are signs of kidney failure.
  • Pain localized chiefly to the upper back: This can indicate a heart attack, and you should receive treatment immediately.
  • Pain increases when you cough or bend over: This could indicate a ruptured disc or herniated disc.

10 Back Pain Causes and Conditions

Back Pain Causes

The majority of back pain is due to muscle-related injuries. However, the spine is a highly complex collection of nerves, cords, discs, ligaments, muscles, and joints. Sometimes, back pain is felt due to an issue elsewhere in the body, such as an organ, and is called referred pain. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms. If your symptoms become more severe, see a doctor immediately.

Mechanical causes

Mechanical causes of back pain include the following.

  • Sprains and strains: These are the most common cause of back pain and are typically caused by sudden movements or physical activity.
  • Disc disease and hernias: When the discs that cushion your backbone rupture, they can smash or compress the nerves coming out of your spine and cause severe pain, shooting pain, and/or cramps.
  • Fractures: Like all bones, the bones in the spine can break. Usually, this is from obvious trauma, but this can also occur in older people with weak and brittle bones.

Non-mechanical causes

Non-mechanical back pain causes include the following.

  • Cancer: One of the most common sites for tumors to spread is the spine, especially from lung, prostate, or breast cancer.
  • Infections: The bones and nerves in the back can get infected; however, this is uncommon.
  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritic conditions can lead to back pain.

Other causes

Other serious causes of back pain include the following.

  • Kidney conditions: Infections of the kidney (pyelonephritis), tumors of the kidney, kidney disease, or kidney stones can all cause back pain.
  • Pancreas disease: Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) and pancreatic tumors can lead to pain in the back.
  • Aortic aneurysm: Sudden, severe back pain in men or women over 30 should be treated immediately.

10 Possible Back Pain Conditions

Low back strain

A strain is defined as a twisting, pulling, or tearing injury to a muscle, or to the tendon that connects the muscle to the bone. (A sprain is an injury to a ligament, which connects two bones together.)

Strains may be acute (happen suddenly) or chronic (show up gradually.) They are usually caused by overuse, improper lifting of heavy objects, or sports. Being overweight or having weak back muscles are both risk factors for back injury.

Symptoms may include a pop or tear at the time of injury; pain that is worse when moving; and sudden muscle cramping or spasm at the site of the injury.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes x-ray.

Treatment involves rest; ice packs; and over-the-counter pain relievers, followed by a gradual return to normal activities within two weeks. Prolonged immobility actually weakens the back and causes loss of bone density.

Proper lifting techniques, strengthening exercises, and good nutrition can be very helpful in preventing further injury.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that gets worse when sitting, back pain that gets worse when straightening it, lower left back pain, lower right back pain

Symptoms that always occur with low back strain: lower back pain

Symptoms that never occur with low back strain: involuntary defecation, first time leaking urine, back numbness, toe numbness, foot numbness

Urgency: Self-treatment

Spinal stenosis

The spine, or backbone, protects the spinal cord and allows people to stand and bend. Spinal stenosis causes narrowing in the spine. The narrowing puts pressure on nerves and the spinal cord and can cause pain.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that shoots down the leg, back pain that shoots to the butt, difficulty walking, thigh pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor


Fibromyalgia is a set of chronic symptoms that include ongoing fatigue, diffuse tenderness to touch, musculoskeletal pain, and usually some degree of depression.

The cause is not known. When fibromyalgia appears, it is usually after a stressful physical or emotional event such as an automobile accident or a divorce. It may include a genetic component where the person experiences normal sensation as pain.

Almost 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Anyone with rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more prone to fibromyalgia.

Poor sleep is often a symptom, along with foggy thinking, headaches, painful menstrual periods, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, bright lights, and loud noises.

There is no standard test for fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made when the above symptoms go on for three months or more with no apparent cause.

Fibromyalgia does not go away on its own but does not get worse, either.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, arthralgias or myalgias, anxiety, depressed mood, headache

Symptoms that always occur with fibromyalgia: arthralgias or myalgias

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Kidney stone

A kidney stone is a stone made up of various possible materials that forms in the kidneys. Factors that increase the risk of forming kidney stones include high levels of calcium, uric acid, and oxalate in the urine, low levels of citrate in the urine, abnormal urine pH, low urine volume, certain urin...

Kidney infection (pyelonephritis)

A kidney infection, or pyelonephritis, is actually a type of urinary tract infection (UTI) that begins in the urethra or bladder and spreads to the kidneys.

The infection is caused by bacteria that either travel into the urethra or spread from an infection elsewhere in the body.

Women, especially pregnant women, are most susceptible. Anyone who has had a urinary tract blockage, or uses a catheter, or has a weakened immune system is also at risk for a kidney infection.

Symptoms include fever; chills; back and abdominal pain; and frequent, painful urination. If there is also nausea and vomiting and discolored, foul-smelling urine, take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Left untreated, pyelonephritis can cause permanent damage to the kidneys. Bacteria can also enter the bloodstream and cause a life-threatening infection elsewhere in the body.

Diagnosis is made through urine test, blood test, and sometimes imaging such as ultrasound, CT scan, or x-ray.

Treatment includes antibiotics and sometimes hospitalization.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, pelvis pain, back pain, vomiting

Symptoms that never occur with kidney infection (pyelonephritis): mid back pain from an injury

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Herniated (slipped) disk in the lower back

The backbone, or spine, is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between the bones are soft disks filled with a jelly-like substance. These disks cushion the vertebrae and keep them in place. Although people talk about a slipped disk, nothing actually slips out of place. The outer shell of the disk ruptures, and the jelly-like substance bulges out. It may be pressing on a nerve, which is what causes the pain.A slipped disk is more likely to happen due to strain on the back, such as during heavy lifting, and older individuals are at higher risk.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, moderate back pain, back pain that shoots down the leg, back pain that gets worse when sitting, leg weakness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Lower back (sacral vertebral) fracture

A sacral stress fracture is a small break in the sacrum. The sacrum is a large triangular bone at base of the spine. The sacrum connects to the pelvis.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that shoots to the butt, back pain that shoots down the leg, severe back pain, lower back pain from an injury

Symptoms that always occur with lower back (sacral vertebral) fracture: lower back pain from an injury

Urgency: Primary care doctor


Sciatica is a general term describing any shooting pain that begins at the spine and travels down the leg.

The most common cause is a herniated or "slipped" disc in the lower spine. This means some of the cushioning material inside the disc has been forced outward, pressing on a nerve root. Bony irregularities..

Herniated (slipped) disk in the upper back

The backbone, or spine, is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between the bones are soft disks filled with a jelly-like substance. These disks cushion the vertebrae and keep them in place. Although people talk about a slipped disk, nothing actually slips out of place. The outer shell of the disk ruptures, and the jelly-like substance bulges out. It may be pressing on a nerve, which is what causes the pain.A slipped disk is more likely to happen due to strain on the back, such as during heavy lifting, and older individuals are at higher risk.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: upper back pain, neck pain, arm weakness, back pain that gets worse when sitting, upper spine pain

Symptoms that always occur with herniated (slipped) disk in the upper back: upper back pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Iliolumbar syndrome

Iliolumbar syndrome is also known as iliolumbar ligament sprain or iliac crest pain syndrome (ICPS.)

The iliolumbar ligaments are tough, fibrous bands that brace the iliac crests – the tops of the "wings" of the pelvis – to the back of the lower spine. If these ligaments are overstretched or torn, pain can result.

The syndrome may be acute, which means the pain starts suddenly after some sort of trauma such as a car accident or sports injury. It may be chronic, where it begins gradually and is usually caused by repetitive bending or twisting movements. In both cases, it is often found in patients who already have generalized low back pain.

Symptoms include severe, radiating pain from the low back to the hipbones, especially when bending or twisting

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and simple neurological tests such as leg raises.

Treatment involves rest, ice, and the use of over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve pain and reduce swelling. Steroid injections can also be tried in some cases.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that shoots to the butt, severe back pain, back pain that shoots to the groin

Symptoms that always occur with iliolumbar syndrome: lower back pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

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Back Pain Treatments and Relief

Heart attack symptoms

First and foremost, you need to rule out a heart attack as the cause of your back pain symptoms, and if you need to go to the emergency room. Symptoms of a heart attack include the following.

  • Chest pain, discomfort, pressure: This pain can be sudden and lasting or intermittent, coming and going.
  • Pain and discomfort in other parts of the back: Including the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness

When it is an emergency

If your back pain is accompanied by the following, you should also go to the emergency room.

  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Dizziness

When to see a doctor

In the event that you have symptoms of nerve impairment, you need to seek immediate care to make sure your spinal cord and kidneys are not in danger. These types of spinal issues typically require steroids, steroid injections, or even surgery.

  • Weakness in the legs
  • Tingling in the extremities
  • Numbness in your feet
  • Difficulty urinating or having a bowel movement

At-home treatments

Most back pain, however, can be treated with home remedies, especially if it is related to a minor muscle injury.

  • Rest: Lying very still on a flat surface can allow the back muscles to rest and reduce irritation and inflammation.
  • Ice
  • Pain medication: Such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: Such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Gentle stretching exercises
  • Heating pads or hot baths
  • Soaking in Epsom salts

FAQs About Back Pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about back pain.

What causes back pain?

Back pain can occur in the upper, middle, and lower back regions. Back pain originates from one or more of the parts of the back including the vertebrae, the discs sitting between the vertebrae, the spinal cord, and the surrounding nerves, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

What is the cause of lower back pain?

Lower back pain is one of the most common complaints among adults. The most common causes of low back pain are muscle spasm or strain, tendon or ligament injury, bulging or torn discs, arthritis of the spine joints, spinal canal narrowing, vertebral misalignment, and, less commonly, infections or tumors.

What does a slipped disk feel like?

Slipped discs, or herniated discs, most commonly occur in the lower back region and can result in spinal nerve compression. Depending on the location and severity, this may cause severe pain, numbness, and discomfort on the spine or along the affected nerve.

What does a herniated disc feel like?

A herniated disc will feel like a slipped disc, described above.

What causes muscle spasms?

Muscle spasms of the back are most commonly caused by an injury to the muscles themselves, or the spine and surrounding soft tissue. While muscle spasms are the body's natural mechanism to protect itself from strains, the resulting pain can be very uncomfortable.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Back Pain

  • Does your back pain radiate anywhere?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Do you currently smoke?
  • What is your body mass?

Self-diagnose with our free if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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  3. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated August 7, 2018. NINDS Link.
  4. 3 Early Warning Signs of Kidney Disease. National Kidney Foundation. NKF Link.
  5. Low Back Strain and Sprain. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. AANS Link.
  6. Back Pain. UW Medicine: Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. UW Medicine Link.