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Guide to Low Back Pain - Diagnosis


Getting an accurate diagnosis of the underlying cause of one’s low back pain is critical, as different conditions will require different treatment approaches.

However, the diagnosis of back pain is can be challenging because there are many possible causes. The spine is made up of several components that are all woven together, and it can be difficult to distinguish which specific structure the pain is coming from.

The diagnostic process

An accurate diagnosis will typically require a combination of a thorough patient history, a physical exam, and possibly diagnostic tests.

The patient history and physical exam help the physician to determine if the patient’s lower back pain is caused by soft tissue damage that will likely heal itself, or a more serious medical condition such as fracture, infection or tumor. If a diagnostic test, such as X-ray, MRI or CT scan, is ordered, the physician will likely already have an indication of the cause of the pain. These tests are used to confirm the doctor’s suspicions and provide more detail.

The most common diagnostic tests include:

MRI Scan (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
The MRI scan shows any abnormality of soft tissues, such as spinal discs, nerves and ligaments. It is probably the most commonly used diagnostic test for spinal problems and can help confirm many common causes of low back pain, such as a degenerated disc, herniated disc, and spinal stenosis.

An X-ray takes pictures of bone and is used if fractures, infections, or tumors are suspected.

CT Scans
The CAT scan is a test that uses X-rays to develop a three dimensional image of the bones. It is not as good at assessing nerve roots or discs as an MRI, but when   combined with a myelogram (a radiographic dye injected into the spine), this test provides clear detail about the spinal nerve roots



Other diagnostic tests may also be used for specific purposes.  Some types of spinal

injections are used both for the purpose of confirming a diagnosis and – assuming the diagnosis is correct – providing pain relief.


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The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for medical advice in any way.  A licensed medical professional should be consulted for any and all medical conditions and symptoms.

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