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5 Subtle Signs Your Back Pain Means Something Serious, from a Spinal Surgeon

Back pain affects almost half of all Americans. A doctor specializing in surgery of the spine raises these red-flag symptoms that might be more than an uncomfortable nuisance.

Faceless african-american patient complaining about back ache and rheumatism to orthopedistNatalia Gdovskaia/Getty Images

Back pain can be distracting…it can also be debilitating. According to the Healthy Policy Institute at Georgetown University, around 16 million—or 8%—of American adults experience persistent or chronic pain in their back that limits their everyday activities. Meanwhile, 2021 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested 39% of Americans were living with back pain.

Sometimes all you need is a few good minutes of stretching. But sometimes, back pain may indicate a larger issue. David Wells-Roth, MD, a neurosurgeon at Premier Brain & Spine in New Jersey, shares the top five warning signs that your back pain could be a symptom of a health issue beyond your back.

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Senior man having back pain, standing in his bedroom.Halfpoint Images/Getty Images

The pain is not going away

“If you have tried at-home treatments, but the upper back continues to hurt, it may be a sign of a lung tumor,” says Dr. Wells-Roth. “Most types of upper back pain ease or improve with pain-relieving medications, hot and cold therapies, and self-care treatments.”

According to specialists, bone pain at times can be a symptom of advanced lung cancer or other types of cancer. Weight loss, chest pain, and weakness are also symptoms of lung cancer that are often ignored. “If your pain persists, it’s important to have it checked by a specialist.”

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Closeup of osteopathic masseur massages patient back, relieving tension from muscles and toning upNatalia Gdovskaia/Getty Images

Side pain

Kidney stones can be agonizing and lead to upper back pain,” Dr. Wells-Roth says. Other warning signs of kidney stones include pain in the side and back below the ribs, as well as discomfort during urination.

Closeup young woman sitting on sofa and feeling knee pain and she massage her knee at home. Healthcare and medical concept.spukkato/Getty Images

Weakness in the legs

“This, combined with back pain, can be a sign of a neurological injury,” Dr. Wells-Roth says.

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Anyone can suffer from a strokeMoyo Studio/Getty Images

If it moves from chest to back

If you experience pain moving from your chest to your back, Dr. Wells-Roth says it may be due to a condition called costochondritis, “an inflammation of the cartilage that is connecting your ribs to the breastbone.” This can be caused by lifting heavy objects, respiratory infections and chest injuries.

Close up of examining a patient's back with a stethoscope.BraunS/Getty Images

Deep breathing hurts

If you experience pain in your back when breathing deeply, it may be the sign of a pulmonary embolism. “Call a doctor immediately,” says Dr. Wells-Roth.

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Miranda Manier
Miranda is the Associate Editor for TheHealthy.com and The Healthy section of Reader's Digest magazine. Previously, Miranda was a producer at WNIT, the PBS affiliate in South Bend, Indiana; and the producer in residence for Minneapolis TV news KARE 11, where she won an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award for producing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial. Miranda also interned at Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW, and worked as the managing editor at the Columbia Chronicle at Columbia College. Outside of work, Miranda enjoys acting, board games, and trying her hand at a good vegan dessert recipe. She also loves talking about TV—so tell her what you’re watching!