Most studies have shown that men are more likely than women to put off visiting the doctor. There are several possible reasons for this discrepancy, but the bottom line is that men may need an extra prod to get health concerns—such as various types of aches and pains—checked by a medical professional.
In fairness, it’s not always easy to know when a doctor visit is necessary. This is especially true for neck and back pain. While a troublesome pain in the spine may go away relatively quickly on its own, sometimes it does not. Let’s review some key signs that it’s time to see the doctor for neck or back pain.
1. The pain has lasted more than a couple weeks despite self-care
For most cases of neck or back pain, the first step is to go easy and rest it for a few days by avoiding movements that worsen the pain. Several other self-care methods are available, such as over-the-counter pain medications, or applying ice or heat packs. However, if your neck or back pain persists or keeps coming back over a period of at least 2 weeks, it’s probably time to see a doctor. In particular, pain that is bad enough to interfere with routine tasks or getting quality sleep should not be ignored more than a couple weeks.
If you have a physically demanding job, such as in construction or welding, it might not be possible to adequately rest the neck and back without taking time off work. In such cases, it could make sense to see the doctor sooner than 2 weeks.
2. Intense pain developed after a collision or fall
Sometimes sharp or excruciating neck or back pain is muscle related, such as a spasm or strain from overuse, and is likely to go away within a few days on its own. However, if sharp or excruciating pain starts after a serious accident, such as a bike crash or falling down steps, it needs to be checked by a doctor immediately. High-impact collisions or falls are common sources of damaged vertebrae and/or discs, which may need medical attention to ensure that the spine is stabilized and adequate pain relief is achieved.
Sometimes pain from a collision can be delayed, so don’t let that fool you. An example is whiplash from being rear-ended in a car accident where the head quickly gets whipped backward and forward. In such cases, it’s common for the neck to feel fine after the accident but then start hurting a few hours later or the next morning.
3. The pain is accompanied by red flag symptoms
Regardless of the duration or intensity of your neck or back pain, it requires an immediate visit to the doctor if it’s accompanied by any of the following:
- Radiating pain in the arm or leg
- Tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arm or leg
- Difficulty with balance, coordination, or bowel/bladder control
- Severe or unusual headache
- Fever, chills, or nausea
- Unplanned weight loss
These and other unusual symptoms could potentially be indications of a serious underlying problem, such as spinal cord or nerve root compression, infection, or cancer. Keep in mind that having these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have a serious underlying condition, and only a doctor can give you an accurate diagnosis.
If you’re ever in doubt about your symptoms, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Seeking a doctor’s professional advice early is better than waiting until the condition has become more difficult to treat. Sometimes just a quick phone call to your doctor’s office or a nurse hotline can give you an answer about the appropriate next step.