Cancer and back ailments

Back-Pain and Cancer – Major Red Flags

Back pain is very rarely caused by cancer or tumours but the possibility of this is an understandable concern for many people. The worrying signs of back pain are listed below and are described as ‘red flags’ by the medical profession. If you have back pain and any of the following describes you or your symptoms then it is important to see your doctor as soon as you can. However, try not to worry as even if you feel your back pain has red flag features, the possibility of cancer remains unlikely and another cause such as muscular pain remains most probable.

Features suggestive of cancer – the ‘Red Flags’:

  • First back pain at under age 21 or over age 56
  • Worsening or persistent pain
  • Pain in upper or middle of back
  • History of high impact injury / trauma
  • Using steroid medications
  • History of cancer currently or in past – see below
  • General feeling of being unwell
  • Unexplained loss of weight
  • Persistent difficulty bending forwards
  • Weakness or abdnormal feelings in arms or legs
  • Problems passing urine or opening bowels (or loss of sensation when doing the same)
  • Deformity of spine
  • History of drug abuse or HIV infection

What types of cancer affect the spine:

Cancer of the spine can either originate in the bones of the back itself or can be present due to spread of tumour from a cancer elsewhere (metastasis).

Cancers that can spread to the bones of the spine:

  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Kidney (renal) cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Bowel cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Thyroid cancer

Cancers that originate in the spine or spinal cord itself:

  • Osteosarcoma
  • Meningioma

How is cancer in the back managed:

This is a very specialist topic and depends on the type of cancer and whether this cancer has spread from elsewhere in the body. Back surgery may be used to remove tumour, radiotherapy or chemotherapy may also be used. Cancers of the back are often slow growing but treatment must be started as soon as possible.


Few people present with pain in the back as the first symptom of cancer that has spread from elsewhere in the body. Cancers of the back itself are exceptionally rare.

The important message from this article is that it is important to seek a review by a qualified doctor if you have any of the red flags symptoms but that even if you do have these symptoms, cancer is very unlikely.