How Can Urgent Care Help With Low Back Pain?

Most of us will experience backache at some point. Acute low back pain comes on most often after lifting something, falling accidentally, or sitting for a long period. Most of the time, this is a sprain, strain, or muscle spasm and is relatively easy to treat.

Lower back pain is a common reason for seeking medical attention. It may be painful enough to be treated as an emergency rather than waiting for an appointment with your primary care provider.¹

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When should lower back pain be considered an emergency?

Most cases of lower back pain resolve in a few days with self-care, such as heat/ice or over-the-counter painkillers. Bed rest is not recommended, as it can often result in stiffness and a slowed recovery.

Lower back pain should be considered an emergency when it is combined with: severe abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, unexplained fever, loss of control of your bowels or bladder, or inability to move one leg.² ³

Any of these can indicate that something more serious is going on, and in these cases, you should go to an emergency room. Otherwise, your best course of action is to take painkillers, avoid strenuous activities, and contact your primary care provider if the pain lasts more than a week.

However, urgent care is a good option if you are in enough pain that you can't engage in everyday activities or sleep, NSAIDs aren't cutting it, and your doctor is busy or unavailable.

How urgent care providers can help

Urgent care providers are a step below going to the emergency room. They often provide cheaper care for routine matters such as lower back pain. Choose an urgent care provider with good reviews, as they can vary a lot in their service.

The belief that they are inferior and designed primarily for people without insurance is no longer accurate, but still, many are not accredited. There are excellent ones as well as those that want you out the door as quickly as possible.

If there is no urgent care provider available, it is OK to go to the emergency room. However, note that your insurance might not cover the cost if they decide it wasn't enough of an emergency.

An urgent care provider may refer you to a specialist or tell you to make an appointment with your doctor when they are available. Typically, they only provide "first line" care. However, a good urgent care provider can give you a preliminary diagnosis of what is going on.

For many cases of lower back pain, all you need is a quick check-up and possibly a prescription for a stronger painkiller.

To treat your low back pain, an urgent care provider will:

Review your medical history

ERs and urgent care providers don't have access to your regular file, so be prepared to give them information that may seem unrelated. They may ask about your stress levels or general wellbeing, but this does not mean they think it is "just anxiety." They ask because tension and stress can lead to muscle tightness, which can cause back pain.

Make sure they know if you are, or could be, pregnant. Hormonal changes during pregnancy can sometimes cause lower back pain.

Ask you what you've already tried for the pain

They are used to dealing with people who have tried NSAIDs and ice packs.

Ask you whether the pain is radiating into a leg

Typically, this isn't true radiating pain unless it goes below the knee.

Do a physical examination of your back

They will be looking for a rash (this can mean Herpes zoster, otherwise known as shingles), tight or asymmetric muscles, tenderness, and whether you can move your back. Often they will do a straight-leg raise test, which can identify a herniated disc.

This will give a preliminary diagnosis, and they will recommend initial treatment. If NSAIDs are not sufficient, they may add a prescription muscle relaxant. If your back pain doesn't resolve, or if they suspect something needs further treatment, they will send you back to your doctor.

You should tell your doctor about any treatment you received at an urgent care center. Most likely, they won't get any information from the center. Make sure to tell your doctor if they, for example, give you a pain medication that resulted in unpleasant side effects.

Don't forget to bring your insurance card, a list of medications, and your doctor's contact information.

What urgent care can't do

Note that urgent care is not an emergency room. There's sometimes confusion between urgent care centers and stand-alone emergency centers. They will refer you to one or get you admitted to a hospital if needed. Some urgent care centers don't have doctors, but they can still prescribe painkillers and other medications.

For lower back pain, it's best to find an urgent care center with an actual doctor, if possible.

There are urgent care facilities that are farther away from hospitals, making things more difficult if you need admission. Similarly, urgent care centers are not legally required to treat you if you cannot pay. Before you even see the doctor, some expect you to have money so they know you can afford the care.

Additionally, urgent care facilities are not meant to replace your doctor. They will help out in the short term, but you should go to your doctor if your back pain is persistent.

Some people try to use these facilities for primary care, but it is not what they are meant for. They are meant to take the strain off of emergency rooms by siphoning off people who need immediate medical attention but aren't in danger of dying, being permanently disabled, or having other majorly adverse outcomes.

The lowdown

Most cases of lower back pain are caused by muscle spasms or strains and resolve on their own. If your pain interferes with your day-to-day activities and you can't get an appointment with your doctor, an urgent care center can give you quick relief and a preliminary diagnosis. However, you should go straight to the emergency room if you have symptoms indicating a genuine emergency, such as loss of bladder or bowel control.

  1. Low back pain - Acute | MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

  2. Low back strain and sprain – Symptoms, diagnosis and treatments | American Association of Neurological Surgeons

  3. Back pain, emergency or urgent symptoms: Care instructions | MyHealth.Alberta.ca

Have you considered clinical trials for Lower back pain?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Lower back pain, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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