Lower back pain is a common occurrence and rarely a sign of cancer. However, it’s possible to have lower back pain related to cancers such as spinal, colorectal, or ovarian cancer. A person with these cancer types will usually have other symptoms in addition to lower back pain.
An estimated 80 percent of people in the United States have dealt with lower back pain in their lifetimes, according to the National Institutes of Health. Common lower back pain causes include injury from heavy lifting, age-related spinal changes, and injuries such as a fall or car accident.
Cancer is a rare but possible cause of lower back pain in some people. Lower back pain related to cancer is more likely related to a tumor in a surrounding area (such as the colon) than cancer in the back itself.
Back pain that could be a sign of cancer usually occurs along with other cancer symptoms. Sometimes, you may pass these off as being due to another condition when they are related to cancer.
Examples of these symptoms include:
- back pain that doesn’t seem to be related to movement or doesn’t get worse with movement
- back pain that usually occurs at night or early in the morning and goes away or gets better during the day
- back pain that persists even after physical therapy or other treatments
- changes in your bowel habits, such as blood in your urine or stool
- sudden, unexplained weight loss
- unexplained fatigue
- weakness, tingling, or numbness in your arms or legs
Back pain doesn’t have to be severe to indicate cancer. It can range in severity.
Having a personal history of cancer along with these symptoms may also increase your risk. If you have back pain and are worried it’s due to cancer, consider your overall symptoms and talk to your doctor.
Several cancer types in and near the spine can cause lower back pain. These include:
A spinal tumor can grow in the spinal bone or in the protective membranes around the spinal cord. The spine is a common source for bone metastasis, where the cancer starts in one location and spreads to others.
Anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of people with cancer will have their cancer spread to the spine, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS).
A person with lung cancer may notice symptoms like easy fatigue, shortness of breath, and coughing up blood-tinged sputum in addition to lower back pain.
Like lung cancers, some breast cancer tumors can press on nerves that also travel to the spine. This can cause pain.
Cancers of the stomach, colon, and rectum can all cause lower back pain. This pain radiates from the cancer site to the lower back. A person with these cancer types may have other symptoms, such as sudden weight loss or blood in their stool.
Blood and tissue
Blood and tissue cancers such as multiple myeloma, lymphoma, and melanoma can all cause lower back pain.
Other cancer types
Other cancer types that can cause back pain include ovarian, kidney, thyroid, and prostate cancers.
A doctor will consider your symptoms and medical history when diagnosing potential lower back pain causes. It’s important to include if you have a history of cancer or a family history of cancer.
Because cancer is a rare cause of lower back pain in those who don’t already have cancer, a doctor may recommend other treatments before doing a full cancer work-up.
However, if pain persists after physical therapy or anti-inflammatory medications, a doctor may order imaging studies and blood testing. These tests can help identify if there are potential cancer markers that are causing the lower back pain.
Medical treatments for lower back pain related to cancer depend on the type of cancer and how advanced the cancer is.
Doctors may also prescribe pain medications to help reduce the painful effects. Muscle relaxants may also help reduce the incidence of muscle spasms that can further worsen back pain.
When to see your doctor
If you’re concerned your lower back pain could be cancer, you should see your doctor if:
- you have a history of cancer
- the back pain started suddenly and isn’t related to injury
- your back pain doesn’t seem to be movement-related
- you can feel or see a deformity on your spine, such as a lump
At-home treatments for lower back pain related to cancer may include:
- Cold or heat. Applying cloth-covered ice packs or heat packs to the lower back for 10 to 15 minutes can provide relief.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can help. Always check with your doctor first to ensure these won’t interfere with other medications you’re taking.
- Movement. Gentle exercise may help keep back muscles strong and flexible. Examples of gentle exercise include walking and stretching.
Less than 10 percent of spinal tumors actually start in the spine, according to the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Even if a spinal tumor is present and causing lower back pain, the tumor isn’t always cancerous.
If the lower back pain is related to metastatic cancer, it’s important to talk to your doctor about your treatment outlook. When cancers start to spread, this may indicate a poorer prognosis.
Lower back pain has many causes, and a rare one is cancer. If you have lower back pain you can’t explain because of injury or aging, talk to your doctor as soon as possible, especially if you have a cancer history.