Is my low back pain cancer?

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people see their primary care doctor. It is rarely a sign of cancer. Back pain is often caused by other problems, such as:

  • Hurt
  • overuse
  • Spinal problems such as disc degeneration, arthritis, or stenosis

Back pain is unlikely to be a sign of cancer. Still, some types of cancer may cause back pain as an early symptom. That’s why it’s important to be able to identify symptoms that may point to cancer.

This article treats back pain as a symptom of cancer. It also looks at when you should see your doctor and how to diagnose back pain.

Back Pain and Cancer Statistics

Most back pain is not caused by cancer. While it’s important to see a doctor any time you have persistent pain, back pain is more likely to be caused by something like a back injury or arthritis.

Key Facts:

  • About 90% of back pain is caused by mechanical causes, such as injuries.
  • The lifetime chance of developing a spinal cord or brain tumor is less than 1%.
  • The biggest predictor of spine cancer is a history of cancer.

spinal tumor

Primary spinal tumors are rare. These are abnormal lumps that grow in or around the spinal cord or spine. These tumors can be malignant or benign. Malignant tumors are cancerous, and benign tumors are noncancerous. In either case, a spinal tumor can cause back pain.

If a spinal tumor is suspected, your doctor will:

  • Get a complete medical history
  • Have a neurological exam
  • Order an imaging test, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or MRI

Other tests may include blood work or a biopsy of the area, if it can be done safely.

Types of Spinal Tumors

There are two types of spinal tumors. They are classified according to their location and their distance from the spinal cord.

intramedullary Tumors grow inside the spinal cord. These tumors account for 20-30% of all primary spinal cord tumors. They most commonly cause back pain, which gets worse when you lie down. They can also cause numbness or tingling.

extramedullary The tumor is outside the spinal cord itself. They grow inside the thin sac that houses the spinal cord. These tumors usually develop in nerve roots that extend from the spinal cord. The most common symptoms are nighttime back pain or pain radiating to the arms or legs.


Spinal cord tumors can occur inside or outside the spinal cord. These tumors tend to cause increased pain when you lie down and/or radiate to your arm or leg.

other symptoms

Back pain can be one of the main symptoms of a spinal tumor, but other symptoms can also occur. See your doctor if you have any of the following back pain symptoms.

  • pain in extremities
  • numbness
  • weakness
  • decreased arm/leg coordination
  • paralysis
  • bladder or bowel problems

Cause and Risk

There is no known direct cause of spine cancer. However, there are several genetic factors that increase your risk of developing a spinal tumor. Talk to your doctor if you have any of the following genetic disorders and have back pain.

  • Neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2
  • tuberous sclerosis
  • Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome
  • Lee-Flameni syndrome

Your risk of developing spine cancer increases if you have other types of cancer. Spinal tumors of the bone can occur when other cancers have spread. It is estimated to occur in 30% of cancer patients.


You are at a higher risk of developing spine cancer if you have certain genetic disorders or have had another cancer before.


Untreated spinal tumors can grow and affect many structures in the area, including:

  • spinal cord
  • nerve root
  • Blood vessel
  • bones around the spine

This growth can lead to:

  • paralysis
  • Scoliosis, a spinal deformity
  • loss of bowel or bladder function

If you think you may have a spinal tumor, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. Spinal tumors can be removed surgically. They can also be treated with chemotherapy or radiation to reduce their size and effects.

Surgery has its own risks, such as infection or nerve damage. Your doctor will evaluate the location, size, and type of the tumor to determine whether surgery is the correct treatment.


Untreated spinal tumors can cause problems such as paralysis and loss of bladder and bowel function. Surgery or chemotherapy can help limit the effects of these tumors.

Other types of back pain cancer

Primary spinal tumors are a rare and very rare cause of back pain. However, other cancers can also cause back pain.

lung cancer

Worldwide, lung cancer is the leading cancer diagnosis and leading cause of cancer death. It affects the lungs but can also spread to other parts of the body. Lung cancer will spread in 30% to 40% of patients. The vertebrae of the spine are the most common sites for lung cancer to spread.

Back pain following a diagnosis of lung cancer should be evaluated immediately. Seek immediate medical attention if you have back pain with any of the following symptoms:

  • Cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored saliva or phlegm
  • Chest pain that gets worse when you take a deep breath, cough, or laugh
  • hoarse
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling tired or weak
  • loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia do not go away or keep coming back
  • respite

breast cancer

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the breast get out of control. Breast cancer is usually detected as a lump. However, in some cases, back pain can be the first sign of breast cancer.

Most of the time, patients experience back pain along with some of the more common symptoms of breast cancer. See your doctor right away if you have back pain with any of these symptoms:

  • Full or partial breast swelling or skin pitting
  • breast or nipple pain
  • inward turning nipples
  • Redness, dryness, flaking, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
  • nipple discharge
  • swollen lymph nodes

Signs of early, metastatic and inflammatory breast cancer


Back pain associated with lung or breast cancer often occurs with other symptoms. For lung cancer, this can include chronic respiratory problems such as cough and chest pain. For breast cancer, this may include painful and/or visible changes in breast tissue.

Gastrointestinal cancer

Gastrointestinal cancers include:

  • stomach cancer
  • colon cancer
  • rectal cancer

Back pain can be a symptom. When it does, it is usually accompanied by other symptoms that are more common with these cancers. See your doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or changes in stool that last more than a few days
  • Feeling the need to have a bowel movement, but the bowel movement does not go away after a bowel movement
  • Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
  • blood in the stool, which may make the stool look dark brown or black
  • cramps or abdominal pain
  • weakness and fatigue
  • unexpected weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • A vague discomfort in the abdomen, usually above the belly button
  • Feeling of fullness in the upper abdomen after a snack
  • heartburn or indigestion
  • nausea
  • vomiting, with or without blood
  • abdominal swelling or fluid buildup


Gastrointestinal cancers that can cause back pain include stomach, colon, and rectal cancers. Likewise, back pain often occurs along with other common symptoms.


Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. When it goes undetected, it can spread to the spine, causing back pain. It is important to have your skin checked regularly by a dermatologist. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor before the cancer has a chance to spread.

Melanoma symptoms:

  • changing moles
  • a sore that does not heal
  • Pigment spreads from the edge of the spot to the surrounding skin
  • redness or new swelling outside the border of the mole
  • sensory changes, such as itching, tenderness, or pain
  • Changes in the surface of the mole, such as scaling, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a lump or lump


When melanoma causes back pain, it’s usually because it has spread to the spine. That’s why it’s so important to get regular skin exams so you can catch melanoma at an early stage.

hematological malignancies

Blood cancers include:

  • Myeloma
  • lymphoma
  • leukemia

Blood cancers affect the bone marrow. Rarely, they can have back pain as the only symptom. Other blood cancer symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • lose weight
  • Blood stasis
  • diarrhea
  • shortness of breath


In rare cases, back pain may be the only symptom of blood cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia.

When to see a healthcare provider

With home care, most back pain goes away within a few weeks. If you have unexplained back pain or pain that persists for more than six weeks, it is best to seek medical advice.

Seek immediate medical attention if you have back pain with any of the following other symptoms:

  • weakness
  • difficulty walking
  • Pain in the morning
  • loss of bowel or bladder control

These symptoms may point to a more serious problem.

Tell your doctor if your back pain does not go away after home care. You may need an evaluation by an expert. Injections can help relieve pain, or you may need surgery. Back pain that accompanies signs of cancer should seek immediate medical attention.

Signs it’s time to see a doctor for neck or back pain


Most back pain can be treated at home. If your pain doesn’t go away after a few weeks of home care, see your doctor.

Diagnosing the cause of back pain

Living with back pain can be very difficult. Pain can interfere with walking, sleeping, exercising, or working. If your pain doesn’t go away on its own, it’s best to see your doctor.

The most common causes of back pain are:

  • Muscle sprain/strain
  • arthritis
  • herniated disc
  • Spondylolisthesisa slipped vertebra
  • vertebral body compression fracture
  • spinal stenosis
  • Infect

Healthcare Provider Exam

To diagnose your back pain, your doctor will perform various tests. First, they will take a complete medical history and ask how the pain has affected your life. A physical exam that tests and evaluates your range of motion and strength will aid in the diagnosis.

In most cases, you will be treated as follows:

  • pain relievers, such as Aleve (naproxen)
  • change your daily life
  • physical therapy
  • exercise

Most low back pain can be managed conservatively without surgery.

response to other treatments

If these treatments don’t work and your doctor suspects another cause for your back pain, you may need more tests. These can include:

  • blood test
  • NMR
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan

Your doctor will decide which test to have based on your symptoms, medical history, and physical examination.

The goal of treatment is to restore function and increase strength so you can resume daily activities with little to no pain. If the pain does not respond to treatment, surgery may be necessary. This is usually necessary if there is a herniated disc or other structural injury.


Back pain is usually caused by something like an injury or arthritis. It is usually treated with conservative strategies such as pain medication and physical therapy. If it doesn’t resolve after a few weeks, your doctor may order more tests.


Back pain is rarely a sign of cancer. When it does, it often occurs with other symptoms of cancer.

Some cancers that cause back pain include spinal tumors, lung, breast, gastrointestinal, and blood cancers. Undiagnosed skin cancer can also spread to the spine, causing back pain.

If your back pain doesn’t go away after being treated at home, see your doctor. You should also see your doctor if you have back pain with symptoms that could indicate cancer.

VigorTip words

Back pain as the main symptom of cancer is quite rare. Your back pain is most likely caused by something other than cancer. A 2006 study of misdiagnosed back pain found that less than 1 percent of people with back pain had cancer.

Most back pain can be treated once the cause is identified. Talk to your doctor if you have unexplained back pain or pain that doesn’t go away. If you have a history of cancer and have new back pain, talk to your doctor right away, as this may indicate that the cancer has spread.