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Signs it’s time to see your doctor for pain

Some of us head to the doctor at the slightest hint of pain, while others wouldn’t dream of picking up the phone to make an appointment — no matter how great the pain. It’s helpful to know when you really should seek medical help. Here are some signs it’s time to call the doctor.

woman visiting doctor for pain

Back pain

Good news. In most cases, low back pain will get better on its own after a few days. “Often, a person suffering with back pain will self-treat,” says Dr. Ron Nusbaum of the Back Clinics of Canada. “The most common treatment is rest, ice and a few doses of anti-inflammatory medication. Sometimes this helps. But if the pain persists or gets worse, it’s an indication that a deeper problem exists.”

So how do you know if you should see the doctor? Look for these signs:

  • Fever — often caused by infection, which may require antibiotics.
  • Accident or fall-related injury — you may need an X-ray to rule out spinal damage or fractures .
  • Numbness, tingling or searing pain down the leg — a sign of neurological damage, herniated disc or spinal stenosis.
  • Bowel or bladder control issues — a sign of cauda equina syndrome, a paralysis of the nerve roots in the lower end of the spinal cord.
  • History of disease — like cancer or osteoporosis. Medical tests and further treatment may be necessary.
  • Foot control issues — may indicate a nerve, muscle or brain problem.
  • Sleepless nights — it could be a serious issue that needs to be checked. Schedule an appointment asap.
  • Unexplained weight loss — to rule out tumors or infections.
  • Pain lasting six weeks or more — chronic pain is pain that lasts beyond the healing period for a particular injury. Special testing and treatment may be required.

Knee pain

Knees just might be the hardest working joints around. It’s no wonder knee pain brings people to the doctor more than any other musculoskeletal complaint. If you injure your knee, try the PRICE method of treatment: Protect (with padding or splinting), Rest, Ice (two to three times each day for about 20 minutes), Compress (with a brace or wrap) and Elevate. Take an over-the-counter pain medication to help reduce pain of inflammation.

If you’re still experiencing knee pain after a week of the self-treatment described, go ahead and schedule an appointment with the doctor.


Most headaches are more of a nuisance than anything. However, when it comes to vital organs like your brain, you don’t want to mess around. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience headaches accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • Weakness, dizziness, loss of balance, numbness or tingling, paralysis, speech issues, confusion, seizures, unusual behavior or vision problems
  • Fever, breathing problems, stiff neck or rash
  • Severe nausea and vomiting

You should also head straight to the doctor or the ER if you have a severe headache that wakes you up at night, headaches following an accident or head injury or if you’re over age 55 and experience a headache unlike any you’ve had before.

Skip the ER visit, but schedule an appointment with your doctor if you see any of the following signs:

  • Three or more headaches per week
  • Worsening headaches
  • Headaches that require you to take over-the-counter pain relievers three or more times per week
  • Headaches that occur following physical activity, coughing or bending
  • Any unexplained and significant change in headaches

More on pain treatment

Foods that help reduce inflammation
To move or not to move: Exercising with pain
Tips for dealing with pain

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