One of the earliest warning signals that can signal cancer is back pain. However, back pain is such a common ailment, that it’s one symptom that is typically ignored. For the most part, back pain doesn’t always indicate cancer, so that ignoring this symptom is only risky when there are more symptoms that might indicate cancer is present. If you are wondering if back pain can be cancer, take a moment to determine if it is serious enough to reach out to a doctor. To be serious, back pain should have been consistent for six weeks or more, it appears to be getting worse and not better, and you might have a risk factor for other signs of cancer along with it.
Chronic Back Pain
Unfortunately, some demographics, like those people younger than 20 and those older than 55, have a higher incidence of back pain. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are at risk for cancer. Cancer symptoms can include lower back pain, but that doesn’t mean everyone with chronic back pain is a cancer patient. Some types of pain, like spine pain, should always be looked at by a doctor, especially if you might have injured the spine. If it is accompanied by numbness in the groin area or incontinence, it could be a spinal emergency, but still not related to cancer. So, it pays to get things checked out early.
Types of Cancer and Associated Pain
Lots of cancers present with pain as a symptom, but not every one of them will cause back pain. However, once a cancer has spread it can end up affecting your bones or back area. Thus, even though the original cancer may not be a source of back pain, once it metastasizes to other areas of the body, it can lead to back pain at a later date.
Spine Cancer – If your back pain is not from a spinal injury or exercising, and you have other cancer symptoms that put you at high risk, then you might be examined for a spinal tumor. This can put pressure on the spine causing lower or middle back pain. Muscle weakness or difficulty walking can also indicate a case of spinal cancer.
Lung Cancer – Lung cancer does not produce back pain until it has spread to other areas of the body. This type of pain may be worse at night, when you are trying to sleep on the back. Other symptoms though would appear along with the back pain, like a persistent cough or pain in your chest area as well. However, since lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths, back pain might be one symptom that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Breast Cancer – You are more likely to experience pain in the chest or breast area than in the back area. However, some women with breast cancer do experience pain in the upper back area. It can be due to a tumor causing pressure on the back. Once breast cancer does spread, it can also go into the spine, leading to more back pain.
Liver Cancer – Once the liver is diseased, it can swell up and become inflamed. The distention against the back will cause back pain in the later stages of liver cancer, but not as an early warning symptom. Liver cancer is pretty rare to begin with, and is most often diagnosed due to symptoms like jaundice, abdominal swelling or pain in the liver area.
Colon Cancer – This can cause constipation, which could exert pressure on the back, but it is not really associated with colon cancer. On the other hand, rectal cancer is strongly associated with back pain and rectal bleeding, leading to the term “colorectal cancer.” Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death. Fortunately, it is easy to be screened for this type of cancer starting at age 50.
Ovarian Cancer – If the ovarian cancer has spread outside the ovary, it can lead to back pain. Otherwise, it is not a source of back pain in and of itself. At later stages, back pain is a common symptom. Menstrual changes, fatigue, and constipation are also regular symptoms.
Kidney Cancer – In this case, the lower back pain presents only on one side of the body, from the affected kidney. Physicians that rule out an old injury may look at this one-sided back pain as a symptom of kidney cancer. However, they will also look for other symptoms like blood in the urine, unexplainable weight loss, or a fever.
Cancer of the Pancreas – Pancreatic cancer has few symptoms in its early stages, but back pain is one of them. Other symptoms that might happen are weight loss, dark urine, and abdominal pain, amongst others. Most symptoms are easy to overlook and that’s why this type of cancer is hard to diagnose.
Prostate Cancer – Most men won’t notice any back pain until this type of cancer advances. They will probably already be aware something is wrong because of the many problems urinating, either urinating too much or having difficulty urinating, with blood in the urine. If left undiagnosed, the disease can put pressure on the back causing back pain.
Bone Cancer – As mentioned earlier, once any cancer ends up in the bones, back pain is likely. It also depends on where the tumors are located, whether the back and spine area area affected. Other symptoms like unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and anemia can also be signs of bone cancer.
Look for Other Risk Factors Too
Most cancers will present with more than one symptom. Back pain is a symptom of many different types of cancers, so that doctors typically look for other symptoms as well. Fatigue, unexplained weight loss, fevers and chills, or having a family history of cancer can be additional risk factors that, along with back pain, could signal cancer. Tapping on areas most known for cancer back pain, like the spine, can help to narrow down the location of a tumor, too. Back pain is a symptom that does present in numerous cancers, so it should not be ignored, but on its own it doesn’t mean that you have cancer. Seek a physician to narrow down the cause of chronic back pain as early as possible.
- Pain Science (2014) When to Worry About Low Back Pain. Retrieved from: https://www.painscience.com/articles/when-to-worry-about-low-back-pain-and-when-not-to.php
- American Cancer Society (n.d.) Sign and Symptoms of Cancer. Retrieved from: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancerbasics/signs-and-symptoms-of-cancer
- WebMD (n.d.) Rectal and Colon Cancer in Men. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/men/guide/rectal-colon-cancer