Acute Back Pain Versus Chronic Back Pain: Know When to Call a Doctor

If you’re experiencing persistent, recurrent, or severe back pain that restricts your ability to move, limits your activity levels, or undermines your vitality, you’re not alone — back pain is an exceptionally common problem that affects most adults at some point in their lives. 

Lower back pain is an especially frequent complaint; it’s also a leading cause of missed work, doctor visits, and disability in the United States and across the globe. Lower back pain is so common, in fact, that one in four Americans have experienced it within the past three months.   

Here at Orthopaedic Associates, we specialize in providing comprehensive treatment solutions for men and women suffering from any type of back pain, ranging from acute injuries to chronic conditions. Here’s how to determine when your pain warrants a trip to the doctor.   

Acute vs. chronic back pain

Just as a range of injuries, disorders, and conditions can trigger back pain, a variety of factors can influence the severity and duration of that pain. But no matter what its underlying cause or how limiting its effects may be, back pain is first categorized by how long it persists:  

Acute and subacute back pain

The vast majority of back pain is acute, or short-term, meaning it doesn’t last longer than four weeks (one month). Back pain is considered subacute when it lasts longer than four weeks but doesn’t persist longer than 12 weeks (three months). 

Although acute and subacute back pain can be severe enough to restrict range of motion, limit activity, and even interfere with your sleep, the right kind of care is usually all it takes to resolve the problem or manage it effectively.   

Chronic back pain

Back pain that persists beyond the 12-week mark is considered chronic, or long-term. All cases of chronic back pain start out as acute back pain, but only about one in five cases of acute back pain persists long enough to become chronic.    

You may imagine that acute back pain is more likely to become a chronic problem when it’s left untreated, but that’s only partly true — sometimes, despite careful treatment and even interim bouts of real relief, acute back pain continues to persist until it’s chronic.   

Common causes of back pain 

Most of the time, acute and subacute back pain is symptomatic of a “mechanical” problem, or some kind of benign injury or disorder that disrupts the way the components of your back fit or move together. A strained muscle, a sprained ligament, a pinched nerve, and a bulging spinal disc are some of the more common mechanical problems that can lead to acute back pain. 

Because the mechanical problems behind most cases of acute and subacute back pain can usually be resolved with the right treatment approach, they rarely stick around long enough to become chronic.

Chronic back pain is more likely to be a product of a persistent underlying condition like arthritis, spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, long-standing inflammation, or an unresolved nerve problem like persistent sciatica. 

No matter what the underlying cause, most types of back pain can be made significantly worse by external factors like poor posture, improper body mechanics, inactivity, excess body weight, stress, and smoking.

Knowing when to seek care

It’s not always easy to know when you should call a doctor for acute back pain, especially in early days. While many people with early acute back pain are inclined to take over-the-counter pain relievers and simply wait it out, you should give us a call if: 

If you’re living with chronic back pain that’s never been fully assessed, hasn’t responded well to previous treatment attempts, or has progressively gotten worse, you should strongly consider making an appointment with one of our pain management specialists as soon as possible. 

The team at Orthopaedic Associates takes a holistic, multi-faceted approach to back pain that emphasizes conservative care for acute and chronic back pain alike. When spinal surgery is an option, it’s only recommended as a last resort when all other options have failed.    

The right balance of activity and rest combined with physical therapy, massage, and bracing can provide sustained relief in many cases. Chronic back pain that’s particularly persistent or severe may respond best to epidural injections, nerve blocks, radiofrequency ablation, spinal cord stimulation, and other interventional pain techniques. 

Whether you’re living with acute, subacute, or chronic back pain, we can help. Call our Albany, Georgia, office today, or click online to schedule a visit with one of our experienced back pain experts any time. 

 

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