Symptoms of back pain 

The main symptom of lower back pain is pain in the lower back that is felt as soreness, tension or stiffness.

Lower back pain

The pain will often only affect the lower back, but it may also be felt down the front, side, or back of your leg.

The pain can develop suddenly after lifting something heavy or twisting your back awkwardly, or it can develop gradually as a result of years of poor posture. Occasionally, it may occur for no apparent reason.

The pain may be worse at night, during activity, or after sitting in the same position for a long time, such as after a long car journey. Sometimes, lying down flat may help ease the pain.

Upper or middle back pain

Upper or middle back pain can occur anywhere from the base of your neck to the bottom of your rib cage. This area is known as the thoracic spine.

If you have a trapped or injured nerve in an area of your back behind your rib cage, you may also have pain in other areas, such as your arms, legs and chest.

Upper and middle back pain is less common than lower back pain. This is because the bones in this area of your back are not as flexible as those in your lower back and neck.

Upper or middle back pain often causes a dull, burning, or sharp pain. Your muscles may also be tight or stiff. If you also have the following symptoms you should seek immediate medical treatment:

  • weakness in your arms or legs
  • a numb or tingling sensation in your arms, legs, chest, or abdomen (stomach area)
  • loss of bowel or bladder control

Other types of back pain

Pain in your upper back, legs, neck and shoulders can sometimes be caused by another condition such as those described below.

  • Pain in your lower back that moves down the buttocks into one or both of your legs may be a symptom of sciatica.
  • Soreness in your lower back, muscle weakness and tight muscles may be caused by a slipped disc. If you have a slipped disc, the pain usually radiates down your leg.
  • Lower back pain, buttock pain, neck pain and stiffness and pain in the sacroiliac joint (the joint that connects the pelvis to the spine) are all possible symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis.
  • Pain in the joints (including the back) when walking and stiffness first thing in the morning are symptoms of arthritis.
  • Painful stiffness of the shoulder, which makes it difficult to dress, drive or sleep, may be a sign of frozen shoulder.
  • Neck pain and stiffness, headaches and lower back pain following an accident are common symptoms of whiplash.

Read more about the causes of back pain.

Medical help

Visit your GP if you have back pain that doesn't improve after three days.

You should also see your GP if you have regular episodes of back pain for more than six weeks.

There are a number of additional symptoms, such as fever, unexplained weight loss and swelling in the back, that may indicate that your back pain is caused by a more serious condition.

Read more about when to see your GP.

Page last reviewed: 21/02/2013

Next review due: 21/02/2015