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5 Signs It's Time to Seek Treatment for Back and Neck Pain

Neck and back problems can affect you from your fingertips down to your toes.

Back Pain

You use your spine in most everything you do. The way you sit, stand, walk — your every movement is all thanks to the bones, muscles and nerves along your spine.

So when you’re in pain, it can affect everything from putting your socks on in the morning to brushing your teeth before bed. And chances are, you’ll have back or neck pain at some point.

“Eight out of 10 people will experience neck or back pain in their life. So it will happen to most of us,” says Emily Burns, ARNP, a back pain specialist at The Iowa Clinic. “Back and neck pain is also the leading cause of disability for people under the age of 45. That’s not a very old age. By stopping the pain where it starts, we can help you work longer and lead a more fulfilling life.”

Stopping pain where it starts is exactly what Burns aims to do with patients every single day at the Back Pain Clinic in West Des Moines. Early intervention is key, she says. Which is why it’s important to understand all the warning signs — even if it’s not pain or not in your neck or back.

1. You have new back or neck pain that just won’t go away.

Many normal aches and pains resolve on their own. If you slept in an awkward position, you might have nagging neck or back pain for a day or so. But any new pain that doesn’t get better after a couple days could be a bigger problem.

“Acute pain is severe and intense, but only lasts for a short amount of time. If it comes on suddenly and doesn’t go away after 24 to 48 hours, you need an evaluation,” Burns says. “Any time you suffer an injury, lift something and feel a pop or experience pain that limits your everyday activities, you need to get it checked out right away.”

Emily Burns, ARNP

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2. You have numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm.

Your arms connect to the cervical spine, which is in your neck. A neck problem can cause symptoms all the way down to your fingertips. And those symptoms typically do radiate down the length of the arm instead of just showing up in one spot.

Symptoms generally affect only one arm, not both. You may feel pain, numbness, weakness or tingling. Usually, the pain comes on suddenly or gets worse when you lift, change positions or twist your arm.

“It can feel like weakness in your grip or in your bicep,” Burns says. “You might not be able to lift your purse or put on a shirt because you can’t lift your arm.”

Arm pain and weakness could be a sign that you need urgent medical attention. While these symptoms might stem from a nerve or spine issue in your neck, they can also signal something far more serious. Weakness in one or both arms is a sign of a stroke. Pain radiating down your left arm is one of the five warning signs of a heart attack.

3. You’re literally dragging your feet.

Issues further down your spine affect your legs. The lumbar spine is in your lower back and the sciatic nerve travels from there down each leg. You may feel the same pain, numbness, tingling and weakness that are common in the arms. Or it might be hard to put weight on one leg or foot.

Foot drop occurs when compression on a nerve in your lower back makes your foot so weak that you have trouble lifting the front of it. It is another signal that a foot problem is actually a back problem.

“Foot drop is one of the main things we watch for,” Burns says. “When you’re walking, you might drag your foot to one side or drag your toes, which can cause you to trip. You also might not be able to lift one leg.”

4. You can’t control your bladder or bowels.

There are many reasons for incontinence. It might be from stress, an overactive bladder or an issue with your pelvic floor. Incontinence can also come from saddle anesthesia, a spine issue that affects the area that controls your urine and stool.

“Sometimes you know you need to go to the bathroom, but you just don’t realize you’re going,” Burns says. “Saddle anesthesia causes numbness or a complete loss of feeling between the legs. And that’s another red flag.”

Incontinence and saddle anesthesia are commonly associated with cauda equina syndrome, a dysfunction of the nerve roots caused by a massive herniated disk in the lower back. Without surgery to correct it, you can suffer permanent paralysis or incontinence.

5. You’ve suffered from chronic back or neck pain.

Back and neck pain that’s lasted for more than six weeks, in any form, is chronic. But there are different types of chronic pain. You may have dealt with some level of pain the whole time. Or maybe you have severe flare-ups of the same pain that go away for a while.

“Chronic pain is continual or recurring. It could come from anything, even sitting at your desk every day,” Burns says. “We always try to prevent pain from becoming a chronic issue. When it is, we try to help get that pain down to zero — or at least to a level you can live with.”

Whether you’ve dealt with neck and back pain for 24 hours or 24 years, there are a number of treatments that can help.

“Everyone has a different pain threshold. But if pain is affecting your daily life and you can’t perform everyday activities, it’s time to come in for an evaluation,” Burns says. “It’s always better to get evaluated than to put things off. The sooner we can identify the problem, the sooner you’ll have pain relief.”

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