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Back pain diagnosis

2-minute read

Most cases of back pain don't require medical attention and can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers and self-care.

However, you should contact your doctor if you're worried about your back or struggling to cope with the pain.

During your first appointment your doctor will discuss your back pain symptoms with you and examine your back.

The examination will usually assess your ability to sit, stand, walk and lift your legs as well as test the range of movement in your back.

Your doctor may ask questions about any illnesses or injuries you may have had, your lifestyle and work, to help find a cause. Your back is a complex structure, so finding the exact cause of the pain can often be difficult.

Below are some of the questions a doctor may ask and it may be helpful to consider these ahead of your appointment:

  • When did the back pain start?
  • Where are you feeling pain?
  • Have you had any back problems before?
  • Can you describe the pain?
  • What makes the pain better or worse?

Your doctor will initially want to make sure your pain isn't caused by a more serious condition. They will ask relevant questions to rule out cancer, a fracture or an infection, although these conditions are uncommon.

If your doctor thinks there may be a more serious cause you will be referred for further tests.

Generally, you won't need an X-ray or an MRI scan, because they won't help to find the cause of your back pain or in deciding how best to treat it.

You will be offered information on what you can do to reduce the effects of the pain.

If your back pain lasts for more than six weeks (chronic back pain), your doctor may refer you to a specialist trained in providing a particular treatment. You may also wish to discuss alternative therapies with your doctor.  

If you're not happy with your doctor's diagnosis or if your symptoms keep coming back, go back to your doctor or get a second opinion.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Diagnosing back pain)

Last reviewed: February 2013

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