Tests and diagnosisBy Mayo Clinic staff
Diagnostic tests aren't usually necessary to confirm the cause of your back pain. However, if you do see your doctor for back pain, he or she will examine your back and assess your ability to sit, stand, walk and lift your legs. Your doctor may also test your reflexes with a rubber reflex hammer.
These assessments help determine where the pain comes from, how much you can move before pain forces you to stop and whether you have muscle spasms. They will also help rule out more-serious causes of back pain.
If there is reason to suspect a specific condition may be causing your back pain, your doctor may order one or more tests:
- X-ray. These images show the alignment of your bones and whether you have arthritis or broken bones. X-ray images won't directly show problems with your spinal cord, muscles, nerves or disks.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scans. These scans can generate images that may reveal herniated disks or problems with bones, muscles, tissue, tendons, nerves, ligaments and blood vessels.
- Bone scan. In rare cases, your doctor may use a bone scan to look for bone tumors or compression fractures caused by osteoporosis.
- Nerve studies (electromyography, or EMG). This test measures the electrical impulses produced by the nerves and the responses of your muscles. This test can confirm nerve compression caused by herniated disks or narrowing of your spinal canal (spinal stenosis).
- Adult acute and subacute low back pain. Bloomington, Minn.:Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement. http://www.icsi.org/low_back_pain/adult_low_back_pain__8.html. Accessed July 10, 2012.
- Balague F, et al. Non-specific low back pain. The Lancet. 2012;379:482.
- Wheeler SG, et al. Approach to the diagnosis and evaluation of low back pain in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/index. Accessed July 14, 2012.
- Low back pain fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/backpain/detail_backpain.htm. Accessed July 15, 2012.
- Duffy RL. Low back pain: An approach to diagnosis and management. Primary Care: Clinics Office Practice. 2010;37:729.
- Devereaux M. Low back pain. Medical Clinics of North America. 2009;93:477.
- Hoy D, et al. The epidemiology of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology. 2010;24:769.
- Jensen JN, et al. The greatest risk for low-back pain among newly educated female health care workers; body weight or physical work load? BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2012;13:87.
- Coenen P, et al. Cumulative low back load at work as a risk factor of low back pain: A prospective cohort study. Journal of Occupation Rehabilitation. In press. Accessed July 15, 2012.
- Pepijn DDM Roelofs, et al. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000396.pub3/abstract. Accessed July 15, 2012.
- Knight CL, et al. Treatment of acute low back pain. http://www.uptodate.com/index. Accessed July 14, 2012.
- Engers AJ, et al. Individual patient education for low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD004057.pub3/abstract. Accessed July 15, 2012.
- Hayden J, et al. Exercise therapy for treatment of non-specific low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000335.pub2/abstract.. Accessed July 15, 2012.
- Last A, et al. Chronic low back pain: Evaluation and management. American Family Physician. 2009;79:1067.
- Carneiro K, et al. The role of exercise and alternative treatments for low back pain. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America. 2010;21:777.
- Furlan AD, et al. Acupuncture and dry-needling for low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://www.thecochranelibrary.com/view/0/index.html. Accessed July 15, 2012.
- Furland AD, et al. Massage for low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD001929.pub2/abstract. Accessed July 15, 2012.
- Henschke N, et al. Behavioural treatment for chronic low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD002014.pub3/abstract. Accessed July 15, 2012.
- Tillbrook HE, et al. Yoga for chronic low back pain. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2011;155:569.
- Sherman KJ, et al. A randomized trial comparing yoga, stretching, and a self-care book for chronic low back pain. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2011;171:2019.