Diagnosing and Treating Back and Spine Pain

Back pain is incredibly common, but for those suffering from either acute or chronic pain, that fact is of little solace. When you hurt, the need to feel better and move without hindrance often becomes the main focus of your day-to-day life — and rightly so.

A wooden figure bent over and holding their back to illustrate back and spine pain.

Alongside the physical pain present in your back and spine, associated emotional pain can take a toll. Feeling limited and unable to engage in the activities you love can be frustrating. It can affect work, relationships, and having an optimistic outlook on life. And because pain in the back and spine can be challenging to diagnose and treat, it can be difficult to find a medical practitioner with the specific expertise and patience required to determine a solution that substantially impacts your quality of life.  

This complex network of physical and emotional symptoms is real. Whether you are suffering from acute or chronic pain, finding a plan of action to restore your quality of life begins with your back and spine care specialist getting to know you as a patient and understanding your concerns and goals. 

Back and Spine Specialist: Diagnosis

How does a back and spine specialist make a diagnosis?

For many, especially those under 60, back pain typically resolves itself with non-surgical home treatments, though it may take months. To determine the best treatment for your pain, you must first receive a proper diagnosis, which typically includes some or all of the following steps.  

Medical and Family History

Your back and spine specialist will most likely ask you several questions about your medical and family history.

  • How long have you had this pain?
  • Was there an event that caused it?
  • How would you describe your pain? 
  • Where is the pain located?
  • On a scale of 0 to 10, how severe is the pain?
  • Does anything you do make it feel better or worse?
  • Are you experiencing any back spasms?
  • How is this pain impacting your daily life?
  • Do you have a family history of back or spine pain?

Physical Exam

Your back pain specialist will then perform a physical exam that includes the following.

  • Examining your spine
  • Asking you to bend, lift your legs, and walk 
  • Testing your reflexes and strength

Imaging and Blood Tests

Depending on your medical history and the results of your physical exam, your back and spine doctor may opt to perform one or more of the following tests.

  • X-rays — to show osteoarthritis or broken bones
  • MRI or CT scans — to look for herniated discs or issues with bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels 
  • Electromyography (EMG) — to measure how muscles respond to the electrical impulses sent by nerves
  • Bone scan — to determine the cause of unexplained bone pain
  • Blood tests to determine if there are underlying issues like infection or inflammatory or medical conditions

Back and Spine Specialist: Treatment

Back and spine specialist stretching back and leg of a person with back and spine pain.

What treatments does a back and spine specialist recommend?

Treating back and spine pain is not a one-size-fits-all process, so you will work with your orthopedic back and spine specialist to develop an individualized and personalized treatment plan.

“My job is to make sure we’re using the most safe, evidence-based options there are, but there’s usually not just one option, explains Dr. Reed, Heiden Orthopedic pain management and spine care specialist. “There’s usually multiple ways to get to the same thing, and everybody’s different, so let’s talk about what those are, and you pick.”


  • OTC topical or oral pain relievers 
  • Muscle relaxants 
  • Anti-inflammatory or steroidal injections
  • Prescription pain relievers

Home and Lifestyle Treatments

A group of women walking together on a trail as a way to prevent and treat back and spine pain.
  • Ice the area with a wrapped ice pack or alternating heat as ice as directed
  • Perform gentle physical activities like walking, swimming, and stretching
  • Work with a physical therapist to develop a strengthening routine for back and core muscles 
  • Add exercises gradually
  • Avoid sitting or lying in the same position for extended periods and use back support when you do need to sit for a long time, such as when driving 
  • Wear proper footwear, considering orthopedic inserts and avoiding high heels
  • Practice proper lifting techniques and carry smaller amounts of weight at a time
  • Ask for help when performing activities that exacerbate the pain
  • Getting enough sleep and try to sleep on your side, potentially with a pillow between your knees
  • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet and maintain a healthy weight
  • Don’t smoke 
  • Talk to a therapist or support group about how to cope with back pain
  • Consider complementary therapies like massage, TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) treatments, or acupuncture

Surgery and Nerve Treatments

Surgery may be necessary if previous treatments have not sufficiently relieved your pain and restored your lifestyle. Work with your orthopedic back and spine pain specialist to determine the type of surgery most appropriate for your symptoms and goals. 

A few of the most common surgical and nerve treatment options for back and spine pain include:

  • Laminectomy — removal of bony spurs and bone walls in the vertebrae to create space in the spine and remove nerve pressure
  • Discectomy or microdiscectomy — removal of part of a herniated disc to relieve pressure
  • Spinal fusion — joining of two or more vertebrae that are out of position 
  • Foraminotomy — widening the area where nerve roots exit the spinal canal to relieve pressure
  • Disc replacement — replacing a damaged vertebral disc with a prosthetic one
  • Rhizotomy — surgical cutting of nerve to prevent it from sending pain signals 
  • Laser surgery — using a laser to reduce the size of a damaged disc and relieve pressure 
  • Radiofrequency stimulation — using radiofrequency to block nerves from sending pain signals
  • Electrical spinal cord stimulation — using electricity to block nerves from sending pain signals 

Remember, nothing changes if nothing changes. Your journey has likely been painful and frustrating, but that doesn’t have to continue. We are here to help.

If you have back or spine pain and want to speak to a specialist, please contact us or comment below. 

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