How do physicians make a back pain diagnosis?

If you have back pain, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis prior to starting any treatment. Treating the wrong condition can be a waste of time and money, and you might even find that your symptoms worsen in the meantime. For these reasons, your physician will likely perform several tests to accurately identify the cause of your discomfort.

Physical exams

The first step in the diagnostic process is usually a physical examination. After taking your medical history, reviewing your symptoms and examining your spine, a physician may perform several clinical assessments, which may include range of motion, muscle strength, and reflex and flexibility tests, among others.

Imaging scans

Once a physician has an idea of what might be causing your back pain, a diagnosis might be confirmed with one or more imaging tests, but these are not always necessary. CT scans, MRI scans, bone scans and X-rays are all potential options that can provide detailed views of your spine and help with a diagnosis.

Diagnostic injections

Sometimes, diagnostic injections are used instead of (or in addition to) diagnostic imaging. Some options include:

  • Nerve block injections
  • Facet joint injections
  • Sacroiliac (SI) joint injections

If a physician believes that a specific spinal nerve or joint is the cause of your pain, an injection may be used to provide confirmation. These procedures involve the injection of a fast-acting numbing agent directly into the nerve or joint in question. If this immediately relieves your pain, the targeted nerve or joint is likely the cause.

Once you have an official back pain diagnosis, you can get started with treatment. Therapeutic injections, medications, physical therapy and exercises are all potential options. Surgery may be an option as well, although it is not necessary in every situation. Often, conservative therapies are the first to be recommended after a back pain diagnosis, with surgery saved as a last resort.

While back pain can sometimes go away on its own, it’s best to consult with a physician if you experience discomfort for several consecutive days. Delaying a diagnosis and treatment can allow the pain to worsen, so it’s important to promptly seek medical attention in order to help you find the relief you need.