If you develop low back pain, it is often recommended to begin a self-care program right away. This may include postural correction and specific exercises to help decrease pain, increase strength, and improve mobility. These strategies can often be started right away without a visit to the doctor and without a specific diagnosis.
If your low back pain persists for more than a few weeks or limits your ability to function normally, a visit to your doctor may be necessary. Often, your doctor may order special tests to help diagnosis the specific problem with your back. It is important to remember that some low back pain is considered "non-specific," which means that the problem cannot be isolated to one specific structure in the low back.
Some common diagnostic tests that your doctor may order are described below.
- X-rays. X-rays are the most common tool used to diagnose low back pain. These tests involve using an x-ray machine to take a picture of the bony anatomy of the spine. Your doctor can then see the bones of the spine and analyze the position of your back. There is very little risk in having an x-ray, although your body will be exposed to a tiny amount of radiation.
- MRI. Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, may be used to help diagnose your condition. An MRI picture shows the soft tissue structures of the back, including the intervertebral discs, the spinal cord, and spinal nerves. MRI is considered the "gold standard" in diagnosing low back pain. There is very little risk in having an MRI test. You may not be able to have an MRI if you have metal implants in your body, as these may interact negatively with the powerful magnetic force during the MRI. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about an MRI.
- CT or CAT Scan. CT scan, or computed tomography, shows a three dimensional, high definition image of the bony anatomy of the spine. This can help your doctor look for small fractures in the bones of the back and help make a diagnosis. The CT scan does expose the individual to high amounts of radiation, so be sure to discuss this test with your doctor if it is ordered.
Low back pain affects most people at one time or another. Although special tools can help your doctor make a diagnosis, it is important to remember that no test is 100% accurate. If you have low back pain, you should discuss with your doctor or physical therapist which treatment is best for your specific condition.