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Ovarian Cancer and Back Pain: What To Know

Posted on December 30, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Howard Goodman, M.D.
Article written by
Imee Williams

In general, back pain is one of the most common complaints during doctor’s visits, and most people will experience back pain in their lifetime. This pain is often caused by muscle strain, bad posture, or a sedentary lifestyle. However, it can be a sign of other serious medical conditions, including ovarian cancer.

In fact, one of the most commonly reported symptoms of ovarian cancer is back pain. According to one U.S. study, up to 45 percent of people diagnosed with ovarian cancer report aching, stabbing, shooting, or burning pain anywhere along the spine and the back.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer tend to go unnoticed or ignored for years. Most people with ovarian cancer assume their symptoms are caused by weight gain, aging, or other less serious conditions. While back pain typically does not indicate a serious medical condition, it’s important to recognize that persistent lower back pain can be a symptom of ovarian cancer. Here’s what to know.

How Can Ovarian Cancer Cause Back Pain?

People with ovarian cancer tend to have no symptoms in the early stages of disease. At later stages, symptoms may be similar to those caused by other common health conditions, like constipation or indigestion. When ovarian cancer has metastasized (spread) to the pelvic or abdominal region, you may begin to experience back pain.

That’s because as ovarian cancer cells multiply, the cells can spread beyond the ovary (or ovaries) and into the pelvis or abdomen. If a tumor forms in these regions, the cancer can cause fluid to build up and the tissues to become inflamed and irritated. A person may experience these effects as back pain.

When Is Back Pain a Sign of Something Serious?

People may have back pain for various reasons, such as high stress levels, their menstrual cycles, or insufficient physical activity. As such, experiencing mild or occasional back pain should not be a concern.

If strategies for relieving back pain (such as stretching, taking pain relievers, or using warm compresses) don’t help, or if your lower back pain is making it difficult to do everyday tasks, the pain might be a warning sign of something more serious. Specifically, if your pain comes and goes, worsens, or lasts longer than two weeks, it could indicate ovarian cancer, so a visit to your doctor’s office may be in order.

Some other common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite or difficulty eating
  • Frequent urination or increased urge to urinate
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Changes to your menstrual cycle
  • Pain during sex

It is important to speak with a health care provider if your back pain is frequent, gets worse, or does not improve with over-the-counter pain relievers, or if you have new or unusual symptoms that concern you. If your doctor suspects an ovarian cancer diagnosis, they will likely recommend tests to rule out other conditions or diseases. These tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • A pelvic exam
  • Gastrointestinal tests such as a colonoscopy
  • CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound

What Else Causes Back Pain?

There are many other common health conditions that also cause back pain and are less serious than ovarian cancer.

Premenstrual Syndrome

More than 90 percent of menstruating people in the U.S. say they experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Typically PMS symptoms happen either a week before or during the first few days of a person’s period. PMS symptoms include emotional and physical changes, and, in some people, that can include back pain. Exercise, sleep, and over-the-counter pain relievers often help with PMS-related back pain.

Pregnancy

Between 50 percent and 80 percent of pregnant people in the U.S. report having back pain. This pain is often caused by an increase of hormones, changes in both posture and center of gravity, weight gain, and stress. It is important to speak with your OB-GYN about the safest ways to treat pregnancy-related back pain.

Ovarian Cysts

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs or pouches within or surrounding the ovaries. Cysts typically do not cause harm or discomfort, and most women will have ovarian cysts in their lifetime. However, when an ovarian cyst bursts, it can cause sudden and severe pain in the lower back.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a condition that affects more than 6 million people in the United States. Endometriosis occurs when the endometrial tissue, which typically lines the inside of the uterus, grows outside the uterus. A common symptom of endometriosis is chronic lower back pain.

Endometriosis may also increase the risk of some types of ovarian cancer.

Other Causes

Muscle strains and sprains are the most common causes of back pain, especially lower back pain. Other potential causes can include:

  • Tumors near the spinal cord
  • Kidney stones
  • Arthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Disc problems
  • Spinal stenosis (when the spinal canal constricts the spinal cord)
  • Spondylolisthesis (a spinal condition related to vertebrae)

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyOvarianCancerTeam is the social network for people with ovarian cancer and their loved ones. There, some 3,300 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with ovarian cancer.

Are you living with ovarian cancer? Have you had symptoms of back pain? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyOvarianCancerTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Howard Goodman, M.D. is certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and specializes in the surgical management of women with gynecologic cancer. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.. Learn more about him here.
Imee Williams is a freelance writer and Fulbright scholar, with a B.S. in neuroscience from Washington State University. Learn more about her here.

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