Back pain is the sixth most costly condition in the United States¹. Nearly 65 million Americans have reported a recent episode of back pain, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds.
Many people describe back pain as a warm, hot, or burning sensation in the lower part of their back.
You should see a medical professional about burning pain in the lower back, as it may suggest you have a more serious condition. Untreated back pain can cause ongoing discomfort and other severe symptoms, like bowel incontinence. It can be very disruptive to your everyday life.
Find out the possible causes of burning pain in the lower back, as well as tests, diagnosis, and treatment.
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An uncomfortable burning sensation is a symptom of back pain. You might experience it alongside muscle spasms, stiffness, and shooting or stabbing pains.
Some people feel back pain immediately after an accident or lifting a heavy object. For others, the pain develops over time as they age.
There are three types of back pain:
This short-term pain lasts for a few weeks. It usually resolves on its own after a few days of self-care and rest, but it could take a few months for the pain to resolve fully.
This is a long-term back pain that lasts for 12 weeks or more, even after the underlying cause has been treated. Sixteen million adults, or 8% of all adults¹, report they have experienced chronic back pain.
This is a type of chronic pain with no known injury or condition causing the pain. Even though there is no tissue damage, nerves continue sending signals to the brain that cause you to feel pain.
This type of pain is often described as a sharp, stabbing, burning sensation.
Chronic back pain doesn’t necessarily have a serious underlying cause, but seeking medical advice to determine the exact cause is recommended.
Burning back pain can stem from various causes. Most acute low back pain is mechanical, indicating a disruption with your spine, muscles, nerves, or intervertebral discs.
Here are some common causes of burning back pain:
You might experience back pain if the nerves running up and down your spine are compressed. This pain is often described as a burning or sharp pain stemming from the back that travels to other body parts connected to the nerve.
You might be experiencing nerve pain if you have a stabbing, shooting, burning sensation in your back that sometimes feels like an electric shock.
People with diabetes are at risk of developing diabetic neuropathy², which can cause nerve pain in the back.
A skin infection can cause your lower back to feel hot³ due to inflammation as the body attempts to fight off the infection. You might notice redness and pain around the affected area.
Multiple sclerosis damages the nerve fibers running from your brain to your spinal cord. It can also damage the myelin, a substance that coats the nerve fibers. This damage affects how nerve signals travel from the brain to other body parts, leading to burning pain in the lower back.
A herniated disc⁴ occurs when the gel-like nucleus pushes out of the outer ring due to a sudden injury or wear and tear. The pressure this exerts against the outer ring may cause back pain.
Sciatica is a condition that affects the sciatic nerve root when it’s compressed due to spinal stenosis or a herniated disc.
The sciatic nerve is located in the lower back, which branches to the buttocks and legs. Burning back pain may occur when the nerve is compressed and may radiate down your legs and feet.
Severe kidney stones can be excruciating and cause sharp pains in your lower back. Kidney stones are pebble-like particles that form in the kidneys, especially in people with high calcium levels in their urine.
A burning sensation in your lower back that radiates to your groin may suggest you have kidney stones. You may feel intense cramping as the stones pass.
Lyme disease is a tick-borne disease characterized by joint pain, muscle aches, and fatigue. It can also affect the nervous system, inflaming or irritating the nerve endings, leading to a burning sensation in the back.
Cancerous spinal tumors can cause burning back pain. This pain typically starts gradually and worsens with time. The burning sensation usually intensifies at night.
You may also experience shock-like or sharp flares in the upper or lower back, which can radiate to your chest, legs, or other parts of the body.
Your physician will likely start by taking a complete medical history and physical exam. Your doctor will ask several questions about the burning sensation before conducting any tests, including:
When did you first experience the pain?
Have you recently injured or strained your back?
Does the burning sensation worsen when performing specific activities?
Is the burning sensation in a particular spot, or do you feel it throughout your back?
Do you experience any other symptoms?
Are you taking any medications?
Your doctor will use your answers to select the most suitable testing method. Methods include:
A blood test is routinely used to diagnose the cause of back pain. It can help identify infection, cancer, arthritis, and inflammation.
Your doctor may order a bone scan to monitor infection, bone disorders, or fractures.
The practitioner will inject a small amount of radioactive material into your bloodstream. This collects in the bone, specifically an area with some abnormality. You will then undergo a scan to identify specific areas with abnormal blood flow or irregular bone metabolism.
The practitioner will inject a contrast dye into the spinal disc they believe is the source of your back pain. If the pressure caused by the dye reproduces your back pain symptoms, the disc may be damaged. Not feeling much pain is a sign the disc is normal.
They will also perform a CT scan or x-ray to see how the dye spreads. The dye is expected to spread if the disc is damaged.
This test can help your doctor assess any problems related to your back and leg nerves. It involves several procedures, including:
Evoked potential studies
Nerve conduction studies
These tests allow physicians to see your body without necessarily performing exploratory surgery. These tests include:
The treatment for burning back pain depends on the underlying condition. You need to see a doctor if you experience unbearable pain or other symptoms such as fever or a general feeling of illness.
You can adopt some at-home treatments to ease your discomfort in the meantime, using strategies such as:
Taking over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen.
Using an ice pack on your back to reduce inflammation. Try wrapping ice in a cloth and placing it on the painful area for at least twenty minutes.
Avoid staying in bed for a long time. Long periods of rest reduce blood circulation and can stiffen your back muscles. Try to move around as often as possible.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if your back pain results from cellulitis.
Kidney stones can pass on their own, but your doctor might prescribe medication to ease the pain. Surgery to remove kidney stones may be required if you can’t pass them unaided.
In the case of sciatica, your doctor might recommend surgery to relieve pressure on the trapped nerve. This is common when other treatment methods — oral medications, steroid injections, and physical therapy — have not effectively reduced symptoms in six to eight weeks.
Finally, your doctor might recommend physical therapy to ease burning back pain caused by injuries or strain.
It’s vital to seek treatment for burning back pain that persists for more than two weeks. Long-lasting or severe burning back pain may be a symptom of a more serious condition.
In the case of severe back pain, you may need to seek urgent medical care.
These symptoms may suggest you have a serious condition, such as cauda equina, internal organ damage, or spinal cord issues:
Continuous stabbing pain
Lower back pain that spreads to the legs, groin, or pelvis
Inability or difficulty controlling your bowel movements
Numbness in your buttocks or genitals
Fever with chills
Burning back pain can interfere with your everyday life and be worrying if you don’t know what’s causing it.
There are many different possible causes of a burning sensation in your back, including sciatica, an infection, and nerve pain. Speak to your doctor to establish the cause of your pain and identify or rule out any conditions that require treatment.
Seek urgent medical help if you develop symptoms like fever with chills, numbness, unexplained weight gain, or pain that spreads to other parts of your body.
Chronic back pain | Health Policy Institute
Herniated disk in the lower back | OrthoInfo
Back problems | NHS Inform
What are kidney stones? | Urology Care Foundation
Nerve conduction studies | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Cellulitis: All you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention