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Back pain diagnosis and treatment

4-minute read

If you are worried about your back, struggling to cope with the pain, or if you have suffered from regular episodes of back pain for more than 6 weeks, you should contact your doctor or a physiotherapist.

Back pain diagnosis

At your first appointment, the doctor or physiotherapist will discuss your symptoms with you and examine your back.

They will usually assess your ability to sit, stand, walk and lift your legs as well as test the range of movement in your back. To help them diagnose the cause of the pain, they may ask questions about any illnesses or injuries you may have had, your lifestyle and your work. Your back is a complex structure, so finding the exact cause can often be difficult.

Below are some of the questions the doctor or physiotherapist may ask. It might be helpful to consider these before 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?

They will first want to make sure your pain is not being caused by a more serious condition. They will ask 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 the diagnosis of your back pain. The Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) and international guidelines advise x-rays are unnecessary for patients unless a more serious problem is suspected.

Back pain treatment

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

The best pain relief is paracetamol, though some people can manage without. Others may need anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, or stronger pain relief medicine, such as codeine, is an option and is sometimes taken as well as paracetamol.

However, pain relief medicines 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.

Injections of medicines that numb the back or reduce swelling may help in a small number of cases.

Physical therapy including exercises and stretches can help. Your doctor, physiotherapist, or chiropractor may teach you these. They may also suggest spinal manipulation which may help lower back pain.

Acupuncture is sometimes used for the treatment of low back pain although it is not certain that it is effective. Some people with back pain also try massage therapy as well as lumbar supports such as cushions or pillows.

Electrotherapy to manage lower back pain is not recommended. This is a form of medical treatment that 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 your back pain. This includes keeping active, using heat packs. If the pain lasts for more than 6 weeks, 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.

Surgery is rarely used to treat back pain.

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

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).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2019

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