Many back or neck problems can improve on their own or with non-surgical treatment. However, some symptoms represent emergencies and need to be seen immediately by a specialist to prevent permanent nerve damage.


Numbness/Tingling/Weakness in the arm/hand

Numbness or tingling in the arm or hand is a more serious symptom that is NOT appropriate for watchful waiting. Left untreated, the symptom can become permanent. You should see a specialist within 5 days.


Foot drop/weakness in the foot

If pain, weakness or numbness extends into the foot so that you are unable to lift your toe as you walk, that is called Foot Drop, which is an emergency symptom. You need a spine specialist within 48 hours. If not treated promptly, it could lead to permanent weakness in the leg.


Numbness/Tingling/Weakness in the leg

Numbness or tingling in the leg is a more serious symptom that is NOT appropriate for watchful waiting. Left untreated, the symptom can become permanent. You should see a specialist within 5 days.


Loss of bowel or bladder control

This is an emergency symptom that needs to be treated immediately by a spine surgeon within 48 hours. If you experience these symptoms at night or on the weekend, go to the emergency room. If not treated quickly, the person may lose control over their bowel and bladder permanently.


Pain in the arm

Pain that radiates into an arm below the elbow can imply a herniated disc in the neck. But many times, radiating pain can be treated non-surgically. Radiating pain is a symptom that should be seen by a specialist within two weeks.


Pain in the leg

Pain that radiates into a leg below the knee can imply a herniated disc in the low back. But many times radiating pain can be treated non-surgically. Radiating pain should be seen by a specialist within two weeks.


Pain limited to the neck

Neck pain can be caused by traumatic injury, like whiplash from a car accident, or muscle or ligament strain. If pain persists beyond a week, you should see a specialist to determine the underlying cause.


Pain limited to the low back

Pain that is limited to the low back can often be a result of muscle strain. While pain spasms can be excruciating, muscle strain problems do not require surgery. However, if pain persists beyond a week, it could imply something different than muscle strain, and you should see a spine specialist to determine the underlying cause.


Pain radiating below the knee

When pain radiates below the knee, it could imply a herniated disc. While many times this can be treated non-surgically, you should see a specialist within 5 days.


Fever, drowsiness, severe headache, nausea, vomiting, unusual sensitivity to light

While it’s rare, these could be serious symptoms related to a neck injury or neck problem. To be safe, you should consult your family physician promptly to determine the cause of the symptoms.