To diagnose back pain -- unless you are totally immobilized from a back injury -- your doctor probably will test your range of motion and nerve function and touch your body to locate the area of discomfort. Sometimes blood and urine tests are performed to make sure that the back pain is not caused by an infection or other more widespread medical problem.
If your symptoms persist more than four to six weeks, you have suffered trauma. Or, if your doctor suspects a serious cause behind the back pain, X-rays may be ordered. X-rays are useful in pinpointing broken bones or other skeletal defects. They can sometimes help locate problems in connective tissue. To analyze soft-tissue damage, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may be needed. To determine possible nerve or muscle damage, an electromyogram (EMG) can be useful.
When you've got back pain, one of the best questions you can ask is, "Why is it happening?" That can be the first step to helping the problem.
Common causes for back pain include:
Muscle and ligament injuries. These are the most common causes of back pain. Shoveling snow or helping a friend move her couch can sometimes overstretch the muscles or ligaments. You can wind up with strains or sprains. Most of these injuries heal in a few days to weeks.
X-rays and MRI studies have limitations and must be interpreted with caution. Back pain may be incorrectly attributed to non-specific and unrelated abnormalities on the images. Ordinary and expected wear and tear in the spine and discs may be mistaken as the cause of a person’s back pain.
Most back pain originates in the back and not the actual spine. Because most back pain is related to the muscles of the back, the specific cause of most back pain often cannot be determined by imaging studies.
Rest: The basic treatment for relieving acute back pain from strain or minor injury is a limited period of rest for 24 to 72 hours. An ice pack can be helpful, as can aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to reduce pain and inflammation. Do not give aspirin to a child aged 18 years or younger because of the increased risk of Reye syndrome. After the inflammation subsides, applying heat can soothe cramped muscles and strained connective tissue.
Long-term bed rest is not only no longer considered necessary for most cases of back pain, it is actually potentially harmful, making recovery slower and potentially causing new problems. In most cases, you will be expected to start normal, nonstrenuous activity (such as walking) within 24 to 72 hours. After that ask your doctor about controlled exercise or physical therapy. Physical therapy treatments may employ massage, ultrasound, whirlpool baths, controlled application of heat, and individually tailored exercise programs to help you regain full use of the back. Strengthening both the abdominal and back muscles helps stabilize the spine. You can help prevent further back injury by learning - and doing - gentle stretching exercises and proper lifting techniques, and maintaining good posture.
Medication: If back pain keeps you from normal daily activities, your doctor can help by recommending or prescribing pain medications. Over-the-counter painkillers such as Tylenol, aspirin, or NSAIDs -- such as ketoprofen, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) -- can be helpful. Your doctor may prescribe prescription strength anti-inflammatories/pain medicines or may prefer to prescribe combination of opioid (narcotic) and acetaminophen medications such as Vicodin or Percocet. Some doctors also prescribe muscle relaxants. But beware, some of these medications have a direct effect on the brain and often cause drowsiness.