Sudden Back Pain – Causes and Treatment

We’ve all been there: You sleep in an odd position and wake up with back pain. But, what should you do when sudden back pain sticks around?

In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about sudden back pain, including the most common causes and treatment options. 

Table of Contents

Why Do I Have Back Pain All of a Sudden?

You may have back pain all of a sudden due to an acute injury, muscle spasms, or, less commonly, a chronic spinal condition.

Acute injury to the muscles and ligaments of the back, such as a back muscle strain, is the most prevalent cause of sudden back pain. This type of injury typically results from a sudden, forceful movement, like lifting a heavy object, or an abrupt impact to the back (i.e. in a car accident).  

Chronic conditions caused by spinal degeneration typically cause back pain that gradually worsens over time. However, in some cases, these conditions cause sudden back pain. Examples include spinal stenosis, herniated disc, and osteoporosis. 

Can Stress Cause Back Pain?

Stress can cause back pain and worsen existing back pain. When patients feel stressed, they experience altered breathing patterns that create tension in the back. Over time, this can lead to tight back muscles and significant back pain. 

The effect of stress and back pain is also thought to relate to a concept known as “the pain cycle”. Within the pain cycle, the following steps tend to occur:

  • The patient’s daily activities become significantly limited due to fear of pain and further injury. 
  • The fear of pain is worsened by the patient’s diagnosis and/or the suggestion to rest. 
  • Limited physical activity diminishes the patient’s physical condition and muscle strength, which worsens their symptoms. 

Within this cycle, stress and anxiety surrounding the patient’s back pain can both worsen and prolong the issue. In one study, severe stress was linked to a 2.8-fold rise in the risk of chronic lower back pain. 

What Are the 4 Stages of Back Pain?

The 4 stages of back pain include dysfunction, dehydration, stabilization, and collapsing. 

These stages refer to back pain from spinal degeneration. As the spinal discs gradually weaken and dry out with age, the spinal structures undergo more impact with daily motion. This leads to spinal damage and, eventually, chronic back pain. 

  • The Dysfunction Stage

During the dysfunction stage, the spinal discs gradually stop functioning normally. As the vertebrae undergo more impact, the spine starts to lose its natural curvature. The vertebrae become misaligned, which further worsens the abnormal impact on the spinal structures. 

  • The Dehydration Stage

During the dehydration stage, the spinal discs continue to dry out. This tends to exacerbate the patient’s symptoms and increase friction in the spinal joints. 

  • The Stabilization Stage

During the stabilization stage, the spine tries to restabilize itself by developing bone spurs. In some cases, spinal stenosis also occurs during this stage, meaning that the spinal canal gradually narrows. This typically results in more severe pain and dysfunction. 

  • The Collapsing Stage

The collapsing stage is the fourth and final stage of degenerative back pain. During this stage, the spinal discs are severely degenerated and may collapse or herniate. This can result in severe pain and neurological symptoms. During this stage, some patients also experience spinal nerve damage.

The final stage of back pain is very difficult to treat when compared to the earlier stages. So, patients are strongly advised to see a physician promptly for persistent back pain. The sooner you receive treatment, the greater the chance that non-surgical treatments will alleviate your symptoms.  

When Should I Worry About Back Pain Suddenly?

You may need to worry about back pain that appears suddenly if:

  • It’s accompanied by pain and weakness in both legs. 
  • It’s accompanied by bladder incontinence or difficulty urinating. 
  • It’s accompanied by a fever, major weight loss, or weight gain. 
  • You recently underwent an impact to the spine that may have caused a fracture (i.e. an auto accident)

If you experience any of the points listed above, your back pain isn’t necessarily an emergency, but it’s still in your best interest to seek emergency medical care. A physician can help minimize the damage and get you on the path to recovery. 

What Are the Red Flags for Back Pain?

Red flags for back pain include fever, chills, incontinence, saddle anesthesia, recent surgery, unexplained weight loss, and a history of cancer. If you experience any of these symptoms with back pain, seek immediate medical care. These red flags may point to an underlying medical condition, including cauda equina syndrome. 

Cauda equina syndrome is a condition that develops when the nerve roots in the lumbar spine become compressed. This collection of nerve roots, known as the cauda equina, supplies the legs and bladder with sensation and motor function. If cauda equina syndrome isn’t treated immediately, the patient is at risk of permanent nerve damage and even paralysis. 

How Do You Treat Sudden Back Pain?

Sudden back pain can be treated with rest, ice/heat therapy, pain medications, physical therapy, lifestyle changes, or surgery. Surgery is only recommended for sudden back pain if it doesn’t improve after several months of conservative treatment. 

Physical Therapy for Sudden Back Pain

Physical therapy is one of the most effective conservative treatments for sudden back pain. A physical therapist can help alleviate pressure on the spine and encourage blood flow to the injured tissue. PT exercises for sudden back pain promote abdominal strength for stability, improved mobility, and relief from back muscle tension. 

Surgery for Sudden Back Pain

When six to 12 months of conservative therapies fail, your physician may suggest surgery. Surgery for sudden back pain most commonly involves spinal decompression, a procedure used to remove tissue that’s impinging on spinal nerves. 

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Conventionally, spinal fusion is implemented during spinal decompression surgery to promote stability. Unfortunately, the fusion process can cause reduced mobility and a lengthy recovery process. Patients can consider fusion alternatives, like the TOPS System, to achieve relief from sudden back pain without losing mobility. 

Schedule an appointment with a spine specialist to learn more about the latest treatment options for sudden back pain.