Many people describe back pain that feels warm, hot, or even burning. Assuming your skin wasn’t recently burned by the sun or something else, the causes for this type of pain, which can be constant or intermittent, are varied and can include everything from arthritis to infection.
See a doctor if the pain is severely affecting your life or is accompanied by a fever or neurological symptoms like numbness in your hands and feet, weakness in your legs, balance problems, or urinary or bowel incontinence.
Back pain is a common complaint in the United States. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives.
Muscles strains in the back generally produce dull, achy pain that can come on in spasms, especially with movement. But hot, burning back pain, which can occur anywhere in the back, is usually related to nerve issues.
Multiple sclerosis (MS)
MS is a neurological disorder that causes damage to nerve fibers that run from the spinal cord to the brain. It also damages the substance that coats these fibers, called myelin. This damage alters the way signals traveling from the nerves to the brain and other parts of the body are interpreted.
The disease causes symptoms like weak and stiff muscles, tingling or numbness in the extremities, and pain. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 55 percent of people with the condition have significant pain. While the pain, which can feel like burning, is most often felt in the arms and legs, it can also be felt in the back.
Compressed or pinched nerve
Nerves that run up and down the spine can become compressed (causing a burning pain) for a variety of reasons.
The spine is made up of bones called vertebrae. Vertebrae are stacked on top of one another and separated by cushioning discs. A herniated disk, also called a slipped disc or ruptured disc, occurs when some of gel-like center of the disc seeps out, often due to aging or improper body mechanics.
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal column — usually due to aging — that can cause pressure to build up on nerves.
The sciatic nerve is located in the lower back, branching into the buttocks and legs. The nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve often become compressed because of a herniated disc or spinal stenosis. This is called sciatica.
Regardless of the cause, compressed nerves are generally treated with:
- physical therapy
- pain relievers or anti-inflammatories
Shingles is an infection of the nerves of the body caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox (the varicella-zoster virus, or VZV). Once you’ve had chickenpox, VZV can remain dormant in your body for decades. Experts aren’t exactly sure why the virus gets reactivated in some people, but when it does, it produces a burning, blister-filled rash that often wraps around the torso, affecting the back.
For many people, the pain subsides once the rash heals. According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to 60 percent of people older than 60 who get shingles have long-lasting pain, called post-herpetic neuralgia. Doctors treat the pain with:
According to research published in the journal Current Infectious Disease Reports, up to 15 percent of patients with Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that is characterized by muscle aches, joint pain, and extreme fatigue, can have their nervous systems affected.
When Lyme disease infiltrates the nervous system, it can sometimes cause the nerve endings in the spine to become inflamed and irritated, leading to a burning sensation in the back. Lyme disease is generally treated with several weeks of oral or intravenous antibiotics.
This is a condition that often stems from a herniated disc or arthritis of the facet joints in the spine (the joints that enable you to twist and bend). It causes irritation to the nerves of the lower spine, resulting in pain that’s burning and sharp. The pain can run from the lower back into the buttocks and legs, and is sometimes alleviated with a change in position.
Treatment consists of:
- physical therapy
Fibromyalgia is thought to be a disorder of the brain and central nervous system. Experts aren’t exactly sure what triggers it. It seems that the nerve endings in people with fibromyalgia may misinterpret and amplify pain messages.
While the condition causes widespread pain, frequently used muscles, such as those in the back, are often targeted. The pain can be aching but is also described as warm and burning. Common treatments are:
- pain relievers
- muscle relaxers
- antidepressants that also help manage pain.
Because burning pain can signal a nerve problem, it’s important to get checked out by a doctor. But in the meantime, there are a few things you can do to ease discomfort.
- Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Follow package directions.
- Use ice packs on your back for the first few days after pain begins to bring down inflammation. Wrap the ice in a cloth and don’t leave it on for more than 20 minutes. Heat can be used after the initial inflammation subsides.
- Do not take to your bed for days at a time. Prolonged rest reduces circulation and causes muscles to atrophy and stiffen. Rest when you need to but make sure you also get up and move around.