If you spend your day hunched over a computer, slumping your shoulders as you eat a sad desk salad, you’re probably unfortunately familiar with dull and achey back pain.
The Centers for Disease Control says that women are more likely to experience lower back problems than men.
On top of being more likely to have back pain, women are also more likely to discount their pain, says Charla Fischer, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone’s Spine Center. “Honestly women ignore back pain much more than men do,” she says. “They tend to put their health needs at the bottom of the to-do list. Sometimes I tell women that they’re the stoic group and men are little more wimpy because they just aren’t used to pain.”
But the “ignorance is bliss” mantra should not apply to back pain. In fact, just crossing your fingers and hoping it goes away might cause permanent damage. Although Fischer encourages everyone to go to a doctor if they have been experiencing general back pain for more than six weeks, she flagged five specific signs that you should get your back checked out ASAP.
“If you have a ribbon of pain radiating from your back or buttocks area going all the way down your leg and into the foot, that’s a sign that there might be some nerve root irritation,” says Fischer. Although there’s a chance it could go away on its own, nerve root irritation could lead to numbness and tingling, muscle weakness, and persistent pain… and who wants that? Fischer says that 90 percent of patients who come in with these symptoms don’t need surgery, but there are many non-invasive procedures—including massages, physical therapy to increase core strength, stretching, and the application of heat—that can decrease the symptoms.
If you’re experiencing leg weakness on either side of your body or are limping, then you should go to a doctor right away to rule out nerve damage. If you do ignore it, that muscle weakness could become permanent. “We don’t people ending up with a limp or a funny walk due to a spine problem,” Fischer says. A visit to the doctor could prevent a permanent problem.
As women get older, they develop a higher risk of sustaining osteoporosis-related fractures. So Fischer warns that “if you have any sort of back pain and you feel like you’re walking unbalanced, that’s something that should be investigated as well.” She recommends that women who are feeling off-kilter begin working with physical therapists not only for gait training, but so that they can be taught how to fall without causing a lot of damage. “If I can get them into treatment that will help prevent them from falling, then that’s a win.”
Another constellation of symptoms that absolutely shouldn’t be ignored is bowel/bladder incontinence and groin numbness. This acute onset of symptoms could be a sign of cauda equina syndrome, a rare condition that puts a ton of pressure on the nerves at the bottom of the spinal cord connected to your pelvic organs. It can be so serious that it requires emergency surgery. “As soon as we diagnose it, we jump on it,” says Fischer. “Studies have shown that after 48 hours, you might not have a full recovery.”
In some instances, Fischer says that patients’ entire bodies start responding to the pain in the form of fevers, chills, and night sweats. “Those are signs that your whole body is going through a reaction to something [else], so that’s something you’d want to go in and see a provider for,” she says. Although cancer is typically the farthest thing from her mind when patients come to her with back pain, these symptoms could be a sign of it or another infection so see an M.D. as soon as possible.