Help the Doctor Diagnose Back Pain

When people head to the doctor for lower back pain, they want fixes, and quick. After all, backaches are miserable. Plus, they keep you sidelined from activities you enjoy. With a proper diagnosis, your doctor can relieve your pain and get you up and active again. But that’s the key – with a proper diagnosis. You play a pivotal role in helping your doctor determine what’s wrong and how to treat the problem.

Lower Back Pain Is a Symptom of a Problem

Low back pain is not a diagnosis. It’s a symptom. Because there are many possible causes of back pain, your doctor is like a detective looking for clues. He or she needs good information to solve the mystery of your backache. Your doctor may ask:

  • When did you first notice the pain? Was it related to something you did?
  • Where did the pain start? Does it shoot down your leg? If so, describe exactly where it goes and how it feels.
  • How would you describe the pain: is it throbbing, sharp, dull ache, non-stop or occasional? Is there tingling, numbness or burning?
  • How painful is it? Is it worse than before, about the same or getting better?
  • Does the pain get worse with sitting, standing or walking?

Be as precise as possible when you answer these and other questions. Your observations are the most powerful diagnostic tool your doctor has. Consider these examples:

  • Not very helpful: “I hurt all over. The pain is 10 out of 10 and has been going on for years. Nothing seems to help.”
  • More helpful: “Last week I was lifting heavy furniture and felt a twinge in my lower back. It gradually got worse. The next day, the pain was more intense and had spread to my right butt. Now it runs from my right butt to the outside of my right thigh and leg. I even feel pain on the top of my right foot and down to my 1st and 2nd toes. I feel some numbness over my right outer leg and top of my right foot. Standing and walking make it worse.”

Good information is more apt to lead to the correct diagnosis. Your doctor may order an MRI of the lower back to confirm the diagnosis before discussing treatment options.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions

The more informed your doctor is, the better the diagnosis. And the more informed you are, the better your outcome. Throughout the process, ask questions. Your doctor can explain the possible causes of your back pain and the pros and cons of different treatment options. If you don’t understand something, ask your doctor to explain it in laymen’s terms.

Your doctor may not have a miracle cure for your aching back, but with good communication you can make better decisions for your back. That way you’ll be up and active and feel better sooner. And the good news is most back pain gets better on its own.

Meet the Author

Mustafa Farooque, MD is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and fellowship trained in musculoskeletal spine and sports medicine at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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