Back strain

Dear Alice,

While bending over to pick up a rather heavy box, I felt (and heard) a ripping sound. Much pain ensued and over the course of several hours my back became stiff and painful to the point of being unable to stand fully erect. What happened and should I see a doctor?

— Spineless

Dear Spineless,

It's difficult to know exactly what happened as back pain can have multiple causes—strains and sprains being examples of some of the most common injuries. The duration of the pain and whether you're still experiencing it can also be useful information for determining what happened. Additional details such as your age are just as important as back problems are more common among people over the age of 30. Ultimately, visiting a health care provider will give you with the most informative answer to your question. In the meantime, here is some general information about back pain.

Generally, back pain will lessen over the course of a few days and eventually go away after a few weeks. However, chronic, disabling back pain may be a symptom of something more serious. Certain cases of back pain may require more immediate medical attention, which can include pain that: 

  • Lasts longer than a few weeks
  • Is severe and doesn't improve with rest
  • Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain goes below the knee
  • Causes weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs
  • Is paired with unexplained weight loss

Emergency medical care should be sought if you experience back pain that:

  • Causes new bowel or bladder problems
  • Is accompanied by a fever
  • Follows a fall, blow to the back, or other injury

Lists adapted from Mayo Clinic.

Most people have or will experience back pain sometime in their life and it's the primary cause of disability across the globe. Back pain could be a result of prolonged bad habits or the result of an acute injury, such as the one you describe in your question. Back sprains and strains are the most common injury, often resulting from lifting excessive weight or with incorrect form. Heavy weights, however, aren't a prerequisite for injury as back injury can occur while doing something as simple as sneezing or coughing. The sensation and sound of "tearing" could be useful information and should be shared with your medical provider.

A medical provider can not only help you determine what happened, but how to best care for your body moving forward. At-home remedies such as rest, temperature treatment such as icing during the first 24 to 48 hours, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help with pain may be useful; however, it's wise to consult with a medical professional to ensure you aren't simply masking the problem and causing further injury by returning to normal activities too soon.  

For now, there's no need to be too proud to ask friends for help, at least until you're back on your feet.

Last updated Dec 30, 2022
Originally published Feb 09, 1995

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