What Could Be Causing Burning Back Pain?

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
March 31, 2022

Many of us are too familiar with the discomfort and pain of a sunburn.

So when you’re experiencing a burning sensation in your back and you haven’t lied on your stomach in the sun for hours, it’s important to figure out what’s going on.

In some cases, burning back pain may signal a serious condition, infection, or disease that requires immediate medical attention.

In this article, I’ll dive into the associated symptoms and potential causes of burning back pain.

Then I’ll explain how to treat and manage the pain at home.

I’ll also detail what signs and symptoms should prompt you to see a doctor. 

Symptoms 

Common symptoms associated with burning back pain include:

  • Rash 
  • Redness 
  • Prickling sensation 
  • Heightened sensitivity 
  • Fever
  • Peeling skin
  • Muscle ache
  • Pain under the skin
  • Numbness 
Have burning back pain? Chat with a doctor through K Health.
Get Started

Potential Causes 

Burning back pain can be caused by a variety of conditions, infections, and diseases.

Pinpointing the exact culprit is important—especially if it’s a serious medical problem—so you can begin the proper treatment as soon as possible.

Sunburn 

Spending too much time in the sun without protective clothing or sunscreen on your back can lead to sunburn. Typically, symptoms of sunburn start about four hours after sun exposure.

In addition to a burning sensation, other symptoms may include redness, blistering, swollen skin, fever, nausea, and fatigue. 

Minor sunburns usually resolve in 3-5 days.

To help alleviate symptoms, try taking aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil), drinking a lot of water, avoiding further sun exposure, taking cold baths, or applying cool wet cloths, aloe, moisturizer, or 1% hydrocortisone cream to the skin.

If you have a severe sunburn on your back that causes blistering, dehydration, a high fever, or severe pain that lasts longer than 48 hours, seek medical attention. 

Skin infection

If the skin on your burning back is swollen, red, and tender, you may have an infection.

Cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection that can occur when bacteria enter the skin through a cut or break.

In rare cases, cellulitis can spread to the bloodstream and lymph nodes, becoming life-threatening, so see your doctor, who can prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.

Nerve pain

Burning back pain can be a sign of nerve pain (or neuropathic pain), which occurs when there is damage or irritation to a nerve.

The following diseases and conditions can affect the nerves and can lead to burning back pain:

Herniated discs 

The spine is made up of 24 small bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other.

A round disc located between each vertebra acts as a cushion, helping to absorb shock and pressure and prevent bones from rubbing against each other. 

If the outer layer of a disc is damaged, some of the soft center can get pushed out into the spinal canal.

Called a herniated disc, this can cause excessive pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, and result in severe back pain. 

Herniated discs commonly occur in the lower back (lumbar spine).

However, if one does occur in the upper back (thoracic spine), it can be more serious since there is not much room in that part of the spine. It can also put too much pressure on the spinal cord.

Excessive pressure on the spinal cord from a herniated disc can lead to paralysis. 

A herniated disc does not usually require surgery. In some cases, mediation and physical therapy may help relieve the pain. 

Sciatica 

Sciatica (also known as lumbar radiculopathy) occurs when a nerve gets pinched, causing pain that radiates along the sciatica nerve, which runs from the lower back to the hips and buttocks and down to each leg.

About 90% of sciatica cases are caused by a herniated disc compressing the nerve root (where the nerve branches off the spinal cord). 

Sciatica usually occurs on one side of the body. Common symptoms of sciatic include radiating back pain that moves from the lower back all the way down to the back of one leg.

Pain varies by person, but it can range from a sharp, burning sensation to extreme pain.

Some people also experience numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness in the leg or foot.

Medication, physical therapy, and steroid injections can help manage sciatica.

Lumbar radiculitis

Like lumbar radiculopathy, lumbar radiculitis typically results from a herniated disc.

It affects lower spine nerves, causing burning back pain that can radiate to the buttocks and legs.

As with sciatica, different medications, steroid injections, and physical therapy can help treat lumbar radiculitis.

Shingles

Every year, an estimated 1 million people in the U.S. get shingles (also called herpes zoster).

This viral infection causes a painful rash on one side of the body or face. Shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus).

If you’ve had chickenpox, the virus can remain dormant in your body and later reactive, causing shingles.

While children can get shingles, it’s most common in people older than 50. 

Symptoms of shingles include burning pain, numbness, tingling, a red rash, itching, blisters that break open, and sensitivity to touch. 

While there’s no cure for shingles, antiviral medications may help the infection clear sooner.

And oral, topical, and injected medications may help alleviate some of the pain of shingles. 

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes widespread pain in the body, often in the back, arms, legs, head, chest, abdomen, and buttocks.

In addition to burning or aching pain, fibromyalgia can also cause sleep problems, emotional and mental distress, fatigue, numbness in the arms and legs, and bloating and constipation. 

Although it’s chronic, lifestyle changes such as physical activity and stress management, as well as OTC or prescription pain medication, can help manage fibromyalgia.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) 

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system. With MS, the immune system mistakenly targets the protective layer (myelin) covering nerve fibers.

This damage disrupts communication between the brain and the body.

Over time, the disease can permanently damage or deteriorate nerves. 

Symptoms of MS vary depending on which nerve fibers the immune system attacks.

Common symptoms include a squeezing sensation in the torso, muscle spasms, difficulty walking, cognitive challenges, numbness or tingling in any part of the body, and neuropathic pain.

This pain can feel like burning, stabbing, or sharp sensations. 

There is no cure for MS. However, a combination of medication, rehabilitation, and mental health care can help people with MS live fulfilling lives.

Treatment 

While proper treatment for back pain depends on what’s causing it, often you can help alleviate and manage the pain at home by: 

  • Applying ice to inflamed areas for 10-15 minutes up to three times a day.
  • Using heat for more chronic pain. Apply for 15-20 minutes at a time.
  • Modifying activity that makes the pain feel worse.
  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medication, as directed by your doctor.
Have burning back pain? Chat with a doctor through K Health.
Get Started

When to See a Medical Provider

Burning pain may be a sign of a serious nerve problem.

See your doctor if you’re experiencing other symptoms such as:

  • Numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness in the leg or foot
  • Lower back pain that radiates to the buttocks and down a leg 
  • Fever, chills, or fatigue

The following skin symptoms may also be a sign of a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical attention:

  • Rashes from a tick bite
  • Swollen, red, or itchy skin
  • Fluid-like blisters on one side of the body or face
  • Extreme sensitivity to pain 
  • Blistering, high fever, or dehydration from severe sunburn

How K Health Can Help

If you’re concerned about burning back pain, seek medical help.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean when your back pain burns?
Burning back pain could be caused by a myriad of things, including sunburn, skin infection, nerve pain, lumbar radiculitis, shingles, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, or multiple sclerosis. See a healthcare provider if you’re unsure what is causing the pain.
Is burning back pain serious?
Though rare, burning back pain may signal a serious medical issue, injury, or disease involving the nerves. If you’re experiencing burning back pain (especially in conjunction with other symptoms), it’s always best to seek medical attention.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.