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Back pain symptoms

Back pain is most commonly felt as soreness, tension or stiffness in the lower back (the area between the bottom of the ribs and the top of the legs), but it can also be felt in the neck, shoulders, buttocks and thighs.

There are several warning signs, known as ‘symptoms’, that may indicate that your back pain is caused by a more serious condition that requires immediate medical help. These include:

  • a fever of 38ºC or above
  • unexplained weight loss
  • swelling of the back
  • constant back pain that does not ease after lying down
  • pain in your chest or high up in your back
  • pain down your legs and below the knees
  • pain caused by a recent trauma or injury to your back
  • loss of bladder control
  • inability to pass urine
  • loss of bowel control
  • numbness (a loss of feeling or a ‘pins-and-needles’ type tingling sensation) around your genitals, buttocks or anal area
  • pain that is worse at night.

If you have any of these signs, see your doctor straight away.

Other types of back pain

Pain in the upper back, legs, neck and shoulders can also be felt as back pain but it may be caused by another condition:

  • pain in the lower back that moves down the buttocks into one or both of the legs may be a symptom of ‘sciatica’ (pressure on the nerve endings coming out of the spine)
  • soreness in the lower back, muscle weakness, tight muscles and loss of bladder control may be the result of a slipped disc
  • back pain, buttock pain, swollen joints and tendons and extreme tiredness are common symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis
  • pain in the joints (including the back) when walking and stiffness first thing in the morning are symptoms of arthritis
  • painful stiffness of the shoulder, which makes it very difficult to dress, drive or sleep, may be a sign of a frozen shoulder
  • neck pain and stiffness, headaches and lower back pain following an accident are common symptoms of whiplash.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your back pain, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Last reviewed: July 2015

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