When you go to the doctor for your back pain, she will conduct a medical interview (called a history) and a physical exam. The information she gathers at this appointment will help her diagnose your pain by placing you into one of three general categories:
- Non-specific low back pain
- Pain directly involving nerves for example, spinal stenosis or a herniated disc
- Other causes, also called "red flags." These are serious conditions that may have back pain as a symptom. An example might be a tumor or infection. If you have a red flag, your doctor will order diagnostic tests to try to get to the root of the problem.
Researchers have found that personality, attitude and social conditions play a big role in determining how long the pain will last, and how severe it gets. So, don’t be surprised if your doctor asks you questions related to this. After listening to your answers in the medical interview, she will then evaluate your risk of developing chronic back pain and disability.
Your back problem may or may not require diagnostic testing, such as an x-ray or MRI. If you are sent for one of these tests, keep in mind that they are meant to help the doctor pinpoint locations in your spine that show damage or changes (called lesions) corresponding to your symptoms. But because most back problems have no specific cause, they often cannot be detected on a film. The exceptions are: You have nerve symptoms, spinal stenosis, or -- based on your history and physical exam -- the doctor thinks a serious underlying health problem is causing your pain. Also, if your doctor is considering surgery or injection medication as possible treatments, you may need diagnostic testing.