According to Statistics Canada, back pain is among the most common of chronic conditions. Although back pain itself is not a diagnosis, it is a symptom of an underlying issue. Discomfort in this area can signal a problem in the musculoskeletal system. These problems could include vertebrae misalignment, irritated joints or a herniated disc. Back pain is typically caused by injury, general wear-and-tear or age-related degenerative diseases.
There are times, however, when back pain can signal something much more serious -- such as a cancer. This symptom does not necessarily mean there is cause for alarm, but it’s a good idea to see a doctor if you are concerned. First, however, let’s take a look at the relationship between back pain and cancer, and the signs you should watch for.
Cancer pain is persistent
When back pain is a symptom of something benign, it is often treatable through massage therapy, physiotherapy or chiropractic care. Pain associated with cancer, however, is more persistent and progressive. It is usually not alleviated by rest, nor does it respond well to various treatment. The discomfort is often worse at night, disrupting sleep and hindering the patient from recuperation. If your severe pain does not improve from rest or worsens after a week, you should see a doctor.
Lung & Spinal Cancers
Back pain is a common symptom among those with lung cancer. A tumour in the lungs can put immense pressure on the spine. Other weight-bearing bones, such as the hips or femur, can also generate discomfort as the cancer spreads. If you’re experiencing sudden, unexplained pain in any of these areas, it could be the sign of a serious disorder.
Many patients with spinal cancers will also show signs of back pain. Neurologic symptoms may be present because a spinal mass can compress the spinal cord or nerve roots. The spine is one of the most common areas of metastasis. This is the development of a secondary malignant growth that is far away from the original cancer site. Unexplained pain that suddenly erupts in this area could signal a harmful spread.
Back pain can be the symptom of something more ominous if it is accompanied by fatigue, weight loss and changes in bowel habits. Here are some other warning signs that should never be ignored:
#1: Pain that doesn’t go away
If your severe back pain doesn’t get better with rest or hasn’t subsided within a week, it’s time to see a doctor. As mentioned earlier, any discomfort associated with cancer is usually persistent and progressive. Back pain associated with a simple muscle strain or sports injury will usually improve on its own.
#2: Pain that extends beyond the back
Back pain that shoots down the leg or to other parts of the body is not normal. Even if cancer is not the culprit, this pain could signify another serious disorder like a kidney infection or damaged disc.
#3: Tingling, numbness or weakness
Lung cancer metastasis can cause spinal cord compression, which can result in a numbness or tingling sensation in the legs. If your back pain is accompanied by this feeling, see your doctor right away. Weakness is another sign that your back pain could be from something more serious.
#4: Pain is worse at certain times
Back pain that gradually gets worse during certain times should be checked out right away. If it gets significantly bad when you’re lying down, for example, speak to your doctor. Increased pain at night can be a sign that it’s more than just a pulled muscle.
#5: Problems with bowels or urination
Many cancer patients have issues passing bowel movements. Obstructions can happen when cancers spread to the abdomen and press on the bowel, or when cancer grows into the bowel’s nerve supply and damages it. If your back pain is accompanied by bowel issues, book an appointment with your doctor immediately.
When you’re experiencing back pain, it’s crucial to investigate its underlying cause. If this underlying condition isn’t treated immediately, it could affect other aspects of your physiology and untreated illness can also impact your overall quality of life. The best way to determine whether you have Cancer of the spine is through imaging (x-ray, CT scan, MRI), so if you’re seeing the above warning signs, it’s important to see a health professional and, if needed, to have some imaging done.
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