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, struggling to cope with the pain or if you’ve suffered from regular episodes of back pain for more than six weeks. 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-rays 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.
The Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) advises X-rays are unnecessary for patients with non-specific low back pain (not due to a serious back problem).
The APA also recommends that consumers avoid the use of electrotherapy treatments to manage their lower back pain. This is a form of medical treatment, which uses small electrical impulses to repair tissue, stimulate muscles and increase sensations and muscle strength. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.
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.
Paracetamol is effective in treating most cases of back pain. Some people find anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen more effective. A stronger painkiller such as codeine is an option and is sometimes taken in addition to paracetamol.
If you also experience muscle spasms in your back, your doctor may recommend a short course of a muscle relaxant.
Painkillers can have side effects, some can be addictive and others may not be suitable depending on your state of health. Your doctor or a pharmacist will be able to advise you on the right type of medication to try.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your back pain, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Last reviewed: July 2015