I have back pain. Are there any symptoms I should watch out for that mean I should get medical help right away?

Spine problems don't usually cause emergencies. But there are some symptoms that mean you need to get medical attention immediately.

If you lose control over your bowels or bladder, call the doctor right away. This usually happens when a disc herniation in the low back fills the spinal canal, pressing on nerves. (This condition is called cauda equina syndrome.) This pressure paralyzes the muscles that control the bladder and bowels. If the pressure isn't relieved soon, the nerves can be damaged permanently.

A sudden onset of pain or numbness with no obvious cause is also a reason to call your doctor.

Problems with the central nervous system can also cause referred pain in more than one limb. Pain like this is caused in one part of the body and felt in another. For example, kidney pain can feel like low back pain. Aortic aneurysm and stomach ulcers can cause what feels like spine pain. Gall bladder problems can lead to pain in the right arm. These problems are serious and need immediate attention.