Exams and Tests to Diagnose Low Back Pain

Low back pain isn't always serious, especially if it's caused by a muscle strain or sprain. But when your low back pain persists for weeks and is accompanied by other symptoms, it may be more serious, so schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Your doctor can diagnose the exact cause of your low back pain and can develop a treatment plan to help you manage your pain and other symptoms.

Exams and Tests to Diagnose Low Back Pain
During your appointment, the doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and perform basic exams and tests. These will help your doctor identify the source of your back pain.

He or she will ask you pain-related questions, including:

  • When did your low back pain start?
  • Have you recently done any activities that could have caused your back pain?
  • What does your pain feel like? Does it radiate down your leg?
  • Have you tried any home remedies to treat your back pain?

Answering these questions as specifically as you can will help the doctor figure out the cause of your pain.

Additionally, he or she will perform some physical and neurological exams to help diagnose your back pain.

During the physical exam, your doctor will observe your posture and physical condition and note any movement that causes you pain. He or she may also note your spine's curvature and alignment.

For the neurological exam, your doctor may test your muscle strength and reflexes, and see whether your low back pain travels to other parts of your body.

He or she may also want you to undergo additional testing. Imaging tests, such as x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, may be required to help identify the source of your low back pain.

Other Tests for Low Back Pain
Other tests your doctor may suggest:

  • Bone scan: This test can help detect certain spine conditions, such as spondylosis (spinal osteoarthritis), fractures, and infections. For a bone scan, a very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a blood vessel and is eventually absorbed by your bones. The areas with more radioactive material, called "hot spots," will show abnormalities, such as inflammation.
  • Discogram: Using a harmless dye that gets injected into one of your intervertebral discs, a discogram can confirm whether your discs are the source of your pain. Your doctor can see this dye on an x-ray—if there's a problem with a disc, the dye will leak out of it.
  • Myelogram: This test uses a special dye to see if you have a spinal canal or spinal cord disorder. As part of a myelogram, you will also have an x-ray or CT scan to identify any abnormalities.

As you can see, diagnosing low back pain isn't easy. Your doctor will need to narrow down the cause of your low back pain using a variety of exams and tests to make an accurate diagnosis. But once your doctor has identified the cause of your low back pain, he or she will be able to develop a treatment plan that fits your needs.

Updated on: 02/24/11