When Is It Time to See a Back Specialist?

You reach down to pick up the infant carrier and feel it.

You spend a long morning standing and watching your daughter play soccer, and the next morning, you feel it.

You lift your end of the heavy couch your friend is moving, and feel it.

Or maybe years of stress and strain on your back have you reaching for the over-the-counter medication more frequently than you’d like, because you feel it.

If you’re wondering when back pain is bad enough to see a doctor—or if you can tough it out with home treatment—you’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control found that lower back pain affects about a third of all women, and a quarter of all men, but a survey by the American Physical Therapy Association found that 31 percent of men acknowledged when their condition affects work compared to 20 percent of women. The same APTA survey found that 37 percent do not seek professional help for pain relief.

So how do you treat a backache at home? If you’ve been reaching for that heating pad, Rob Dickerman, D.O., Ph.D., neurosurgeon and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano, says that’s actually not a good idea.

“Ice and anti-inflammatories at first,” he says. “Never heat—just ice the sore area and the muscles.”

“When your day-to-day life has been compromised, it’s time to seek professional help,” Dickerman adds.

So why do so many say they don’t seek medical attention for their back pain? “It’s hard to say,” says Dickerman. “I know some have difficulty with what type of doctor to see.”

“People think neurosurgeons only operate, yet 90 percent of what I see is treated conservatively—or non-surgically, in other words,” he says. “It never hurts to ask if you’re in pain.”

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases adds that there are some times that you should seek a doctor’s attention without waiting to tough it out.

If you are feeling any of these symptoms (or a combination) you should seek a doctor’s attention:

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Severe pain that does not improve with rest
  • Pain after a fall or an injury
  • Pain plus any of these problems:
    • Trouble urinating
    • Weakness
    • Numbness in your legs
    • Fever
    • Weight loss when not on a diet.

But there are also ways to avoid most back pain, experts say. Dickerman recommends “proper mechanics, knowing your age-related limitations, keeping your back straight while lifting with your legs,” for starters.

Good posture, experts agree, is also a good way to avoid back pain.

“Probably the most beneficial thing about having good posture is that it decreases the stress on the spinal musculature, the spinal structure and the joints,” says Kathy Farkas, a physical therapist at Texas Health Dallas.

“Most people know their posture is bad because it gives rise to pain,” she says. “Or you’re looking in a mirror and you see that you’re bent over or hunched over, and you’ll know.”

Farkas recommends the following:

    • If you’re sitting at a desk, make sure you change your position every 20 to 30 minutes, and make sure your feet are resting evenly on the ground, and your thighs are parallel to the floor.
    • Place your computer monitor at eye level or slightly lower.
    • If you stand a lot for work, shift your weight and lean against something occasionally.
    • If you’re a parent, carry that baby at the front (not on your hip) to better distribute the weight.


Curious about your spine health? Take the Back Health Assessment to measure your back pain or visit YourBackHealth.com for more information. Ready to schedule an appointment? Call 877-431-2938 today and an associate will help you find a back and spine specialist on the medical staff near you or begin your search online.


  • James Freeman says:

    All of the above.

  • Janet says:

    My son had a leg shorter than the other which contributed to back / neck pain. Osteopathic manipulation has helped (along with a lift in his shoe). Has to sleep on one side all night because of a broken nose is probably part of the morning neck pain. Medical marijuana would help if it becomes available in Texas.

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