How Do I Know What Is Causing my Back Pain?
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 for more than four to six weeks, you have suffered trauma. 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, including disk problems, 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.
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.
What Are the Treatments for Back Pain?
Only after determining the cause of the problem can a doctor begin treating back pain.
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. For severe pain, your doctor may prescribe prescription strength anti-inflammatories/pain medicines or may prefer to prescribe a short-term 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.
Opioids can be addictive and their use on a long term basis should be avoided unless a definite cause of back pain related to an injury or a disease can be established. Even then, they must be cautiously used and under the close supervision of a physician.
If your primary doctor isn't able to help you control the pain, he/she may refer you to a back specialist or a pain specialist. Sometimes these doctors will use injections of steroids or anesthetics to help control the pain or for diagnosis.
The use of injections and procedures in and around the spine is limited as such treatments often provide only temporary relief. However, they can be important in helping diagnose structural causes in pain and assisting the physical rehabilitation when other methods have failed. The various injection procedures are costly and have potential side effects, which should be discussed in detail before proceeding. Often, a pain specialist or back specialist will also employ rehabilitation and counseling by non-physician personnel such as therapists, counselors, and patient educators.
TENS: Some physicians advocate using a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS). Electrodes taped to the body carry a mild electric current that helps relieve pain. After appropriate training, patients can use a TENS on their own to help reduce pain while they recover from strained or moderately injured backs.
Surgery for nonspecific back pain is a last resort as spinal problems are unlikely to be the cause of chronic non-specific back pain in the absence of loss of movement and sensation or other findings such as loss of muscle bulk and reflexes. In cases where the pain spreads into the extremities and imaging studies reveal compression or damage to nerve tissue in the spine, surgery remains a consideration if loss of function as well as pain continues after a trial of conservative treatment with medications and activity modification including a home exercise program and physical therapy.
Rhizotomy: In cases of persistent pain from extreme nerve damage, rhizotomy - surgically severing a nerve - may be necessary to stop transmission of pain to the brain. Rhizotomy can correct the symptoms caused by friction between the surfaces in a spinal joint, but it doesn't address other problems, such as herniated discs.
Spinal manipulation: The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recognizes spinal manipulation by chiropractors and osteopaths as effective for acute low-back pain. Its effectiveness for treating chronic back pain is less well established. Some researchers suggest that early manipulative treatment for acute back pain may prevent chronic problems from developing. Other doctors warn against some chiropractic manipulations, particularly those that involve rapid twisting of the neck. Spinal manipulation can be considered a form of conservative care for the treatment of acute and chronic back pain as it is not invasive and does not employ prescription medications.
Because osteopaths are fully licensed doctors, their osteopathic treatment is likely to combine drug therapy with spinal manipulation, followed by physical therapy and exercise.
Acupuncture: Both the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians released guidelines stating that acupuncture may help patients with chronic low-back pain when other treatments have failed. It can be used alone or as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes medications and other therapies. However, there is not enough evidence yet to recommend it for acute back pain.
CBT: If you consult a psychotherapist for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), your treatment may include stress management, behavioral adaptation, education, and relaxation techniques. CBT can lessen the intensity of back pain, change perceptions about levels of pain and disability, and even lift depression. The NIH considers CBT useful for relieving low back pain, citing studies that show CBT to be superior to routine care and placebo.
Other comprehensive behavioral programs have shown similar success, with participants able to lessen the amount of medication they needed while improving their outlook and pain-related behavior.
Biofeedback: If lower back pain is related to muscle tension or spasm, biofeedback can be effective for lessening pain intensity, decreasing drug use, and improving quality of life. Biofeedback may help you train your muscles to respond better to stress or movement.
Exercise methods: The Alexander Technique, Pilates, and the Feldendkrais Method are all specialized forms of body work that help you learn to move in a more coordinated, flexible, and graceful manner. They may help you become more aware of your movements and may help relieve stress. Some of the postures of yoga may help diminish low back pain, improve flexibility, strength, and sense of balance. Yoga is also good for stress reduction and can help with the psychological aspects of pain. Core exercises strengthen the muscles that support the back and help reduce pain. These non-medical and conservative therapies empower patients. This empowerment with a self-help plan may reduce feelings of helplessness and pain separate from any effect on body tissues and structures. More research is needed to see how these exercise techniques affect back pain.
Aquatic therapy: Aquatic therapy and exercise can also improve flexibility and decrease pain for some people with chronic low back problems. It is especially beneficial for those patients who cannot tolerate land-based physical therapy.This is because the unique properties of water often make it a safe environment for exercising a sore back, providing gentle resistance, comfort, and relaxation. Fear of pain associated with movement is a major limiting factor for rehabilitation and exercises therapy. The support and warmth of the water enables a person to gradually introduce daily exercise into their treatment.
In many instances, knowing the cause of the pain and being able to fix the problem is not possible. In this case, the primary goal of pain management treatment may be to permit the person to function as best as possible despite any discomfort.