Cancer is a rare cause of back pain. To know if your back pain is cancer, your doctor will take your medical history and consider your symptoms. They will ask if someone in your family has or had back cancer or any other cancer.
Your doctor will first try to rule out other causes of back pain before arriving at the diagnosis of back cancer.
- They will first begin with treatments, such as physical therapy and pain medications, and check how well your back pain improves.
- If these treatments offer little to no pain relief, they will order blood tests and imaging tests such as X-rays, bone scans, or magnetic resonance imaging.
- These tests can let you and your doctor know if your back pain is due to cancer.
What are the symptoms of back pain due to cancer?
If cancer is causing your back pain, you may not find relief with conventional treatments administered to relieve back pain. Additionally, a visible lump may be seen in the back.
If the back pain is due to cancer, you may experience back pain that:
- Persists all day, independent of activities
- Intensifies during the night or after getting up in the morning
You may experience other symptoms, such as:
What are the causes of back pain?
Doctors will first try to find out if the following are the causes of your back pain:
- Back injury
- Osteoarthritis of the spine (spondylitis)
- Muscle or ligament strains
- Tuberculosis of the spine
- Improper posture
- Prolonged sitting
Uncommon causes of back pain
- Certain cancers:
- Side effects of chemotherapy or other cancer therapies: For example, a hormone therapy, Herceptin, used in the treatment of some breast cancers can cause back pain.
How is back pain treated if it is due to cancer?
After finding out the type of cancer responsible for your back pain, your doctor will decide the treatment based on the tumor’s type and location, as well as other serious health conditions that you have.
If you have a spinal tumor, your doctor may advise you to monitor the progression of your cancer or complete removal (resection) of the spinal tumor.
Your doctor will discuss the following treatment options with you:
- Pain medications:
- Corticosteroids: These may be administered if pain medications fail to provide relief from back pain. They can be administered to shrink the tumor.
- Chemotherapy drugs: Administered in the form of either injections or oral pills, chemotherapy drugs kill the cancer cells present throughout the body.
- Immunotherapy drugs: Immunotherapy involves using the immune system to attack cancer cells of the body. Some evidence shows its effectiveness in spinal tumors, but more research is needed to recommend it for widespread usage.
For rare tumors, such as spinal cancer, scientists continue to test newer medications and treatments through clinical experiments (trials). You can ask your doctor if you can get enrolled in one of these trials. They may recommend you one.
You may find some relief in back pain by trying simple home treatments, such as:
American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Spinal Tumors. https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Spinal-Tumors
Verhagen AP, Downie A, Popal N, et al. Red flags presented in current low back pain guidelines: a review. Eur Spine J. 2016 Sep;25(9):2788-802. doi: 10.1007/s00586-016-4684-0.
Downie A, Williams CM, Henschke N, et al. Red flags to screen for malignancy and fracture in patients with low back pain: systematic review. BMJ. 2013 Dec 11;347:f7095. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f7095. Erratum in: BMJ. 2014;348:g7.
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