Back pain: Signs and symptoms

Woman holding back

Recognising back and neck pain

Back pain can be treated symptomatically but it is important to first rule out any underlying conditions that require attention from a physician.

  • Upper and middle back pain may present as aching, stiffness or sharp/burning sensations in that area1
  • Symptoms of lower back pain typically include tension/stiffness or soreness in that area1
  • It is important to first take a general assessment of the patient’s pain, by asking about severity, onset, location and timing of the pain.2,3

    Next, more specific questions about back and neck pain can help guide treatment options: for example, ask:2

    • Where exactly does it hurt?
    • Do you feel pain anywhere else other than just the back or neck?
    • Describe the pain. Is it sharp? Or a dull ache? Does it feel sore? Or stiff? Or do you feel a particular sensation such as prickling?
    • Is the pain present all the time or does it just occur when you move, or perform any particular activity?
    • Does the pain ease after you have rested? Or does it get worse?
    • When did the pain start? Had anything happened before then that could explain the pain, for example a fall or an injury?
  • Appropriate interviewing can also help determine whether the patient should be referred for more detailed review.

    The patient should be immediately referred to an emergency department if the back pain is severe (particularly if it also involves the legs or middle and upper back),4 or if it is accompanied by any of the following:1

    • Numbness or tingling around the genitals or buttocks
    • Difficulty urinating
    • Loss of bladder or bowel control
    • Chest pain
    • Fever of 38°C (100.4°F) or above
    • Unexplained weight loss
    • A swelling or a deformity in the back
    • It doesn't improve after resting or is worse at night
    • It started after a serious accident, such as after a car accident
  • Once referred, physicians may conduct tests to rule out serious underlying causes, for example:4

    • X-rays to show skeletal alignment and diagnose you have arthritis or fractures
    • Magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography scans for herniated disks or problems with bones, muscles, tissue, tendons, nerves, ligaments and blood vessels
    • Blood tests to identify infection or other condition with haematological biomarkers
    • Bone scans are used in rare cases for suspected bone tumours or compression fractures caused by osteoporosis
    • Electromyography to confirm nerve compression caused by herniated disks or narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis)

Understanding back pain

Causes icon

Causes

Find out about the causes of back and neck pain.

FIND OUT MORE

Management icon

Management

Learn how back and neck pain can be managed.

FIND OUT MORE

Sprains and strains

Overview of sprains and strains

Find out about how prevalent sprains and strains are, and meet two patients with these problems.

FIND OUT MORE

Learn more

Voltaren tablets and soft capsules

Voltaren Triple Effect 1.16% Emulgel for strains and sprains

Relieves pain, reduces inflammation and speeds up the natural healing process.6,7

LEARN MORE

Panadol_Extend_pack shot

Panadol Extend

Provides immediate release and pain relief up to 8 hours.

LEARN MORE

Patient care resources icon

Patient care resources

Access a leaflet for your patients that explains how Voltaren tablets and soft capsules can help relieve their back pain.

LEARN MORE