When is Back Pain an Emergency?

Back pain can be debilitating, and I receive many patients that have gone to the emergency room for their pain. Fortunately, this is very often NOT necessary, and often NOT useful. Here’s how to know, and what you can do instead.

Do I need the emergency room for my back pain?

What back pain is considered an emergency?

You should go to the Emergency Room if you have SEVERE back pain PLUS:

  • Vomiting, nausea, and fever. Basically your back hurts PLUS you have flu-like symptoms
  • Trauma associated with a car accident or falling down the stairs. The concern is something is broken. This could be more head/neck related too.
  • Bowl or bladder problems and loss of feeling and/or strength and power in your legs. Your spinal injury is affecting your FUNCTION. Go get an MRI because a surgeon needs to cut something out.
  • A history of cancer and more pain at night. Technically this one doesn’t require the ER, just go see your oncologist.

What do I do with my back pain.

Since you didn’t listen and you’re just chilling in the waiting room, here’s a list of things you can try to get pain relief. They are in the order of most to least aggressive, so if your pain is really bad, start at the bottom of the list.

Why doesn’t the emergency room care about my back pain?

It isn’t that they don’t care, they just aren’t trained to manage you if it is not an emergency. Back pain, which can be painful, without the red flags listed above, IS NOT an emergency. So the best they can do is give you some meds and send you on your way.

Its not you, its them. And it’s designed to be that way. They have to go and save people with life threatening emergencies, not be bothered by your run o’ the mill sciatica.

The best treatment for severe low back pain? Time

Go here for >>> what’s causing my low back pain?


Back pain sucks, and can be painful, but try not to waste your time going to the ER unless you have pain PLUS the items I listed above. Obviously it’s your back and life, so go if want. Try not to be mad if/when they send you home without any resolution of your problem.