Back Pain

Cardinal Presentations

This post is part of a series called “Cardinal Presentations”, based on Rosen’s Emergency Medicine (8th edition).

Causes of Back Pain

Causes of Back Pain

Key Historical Findings

Acute onset with associated activity suggests mechanical process
Acute onset without trigger, particularly if severe pain may suggest vascular process
Progressive onset without trigger suggests non-mechanical process (i.e. malignancy)
Aggravating/Alleviating Factors
Worsening with cough/valsalva suggests herniated disk
Relief with flexion associated with spinal stenosis
Radicular pain typically extends below knee, associated with nerve root involvement
Radiation to/from chest or abdomen suggests visceral source
Flank location suggests retroperitoneal source
History/Associated Symptoms
Medications (particularly anti-coagulants)
Vascular disease

Key Physical Findings

  • Abnormal vital signs

    • Fever: abscess, osteomyelitis, discitis
    • Hypertension: dissection
    • Shock: AAA
  • Localize point of greatest tenderness
  • Examine abdomen for pulsatile mass
  • Perform thorough neurological examination including rectal tone and perianal sensation
  • Positive straight leg raise associated with sciatic nerve root irritation and is sensitive (but not specific) for disk disease.


  1. Mahoney, B. (2013). Back Pain. In Rosen’s Emergency Medicine – Concepts and Clinical Practice (8th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 278-284). Elsevier Health Sciences.
  2. WikEM: Lower back pain