Although sharp low back pain is common, and often nothing to worry about beyond a simple muscle strain, the possibility that it’s caused by a serious health condition is still there.
Doctors generally have little to no problem diagnosing back pain that also comes with symptoms in your leg. The most obvious example is sciatica, which may show up as unbearable leg pain, along with numbness, tingling or weakness.
Sciatica is often caused by one or more herniated discs. It can be readily diagnosed because during your medical exam, your doctor is able to trace your leg symptoms along nerve zones called dermatomes (for sensations) and myotomes (for actions and movements). The zones extend from your leg to the exact location in your spine from which the nerve root irritation causing the leg pain arises.
But diagnosing JUST back pain is a mixed bag, says Dr. Kathleen Fink, attending physician at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington D.C. “With leg pain, the doctor has clues such as weakness, tingling or numbness down a leg that are tied to the location of the damage." However, she adds, "with back pain only, a doctor has to identify the pieces of the puzzle (via exams and imaging tests), and then prioritize the possibilities."
Fink calls attention to “red flags”, or symptoms in addition to sharp low back pain that may indicate something is amiss. She counsels people to be concerned if they notice any of the following symptoms:
Features That Make Cancer or Infection a Consideration:
- Long history of smoking
- Sudden or unexplained weight loss
- Pain at night
- Worsening of pain over time
Systemic Sign of infection
Fink notes there are many symptoms associated with serious health issues you cannot detect yourself. In rare instances, she says, sharp low back pain may indicate very serious health conditions, such as pancreas problems or aortic aneurysm. This shows why it's important to get your back pain checked by your physician.
“To diagnose systemic causes of sharp low back pain, you really need a doctor who is a good detective,” Finks says. “You also need good luck.”
Fink, K., MD, Attending Physician. National Rehabilitation Hospital, Washington, DC. Telephone Interview. May 12 2011.