You can have the same exact spine-related problem as someone else and still experience very different symptoms and levels of pain. Because back pain is subjective, making an accurate diagnosis can be difficult. Results from CT and MRI scans can be skewed as well, since diagnostic tests can’t determine how your spine-related symptoms are affecting you on a regular basis, which is why it’s important to accurately describe symptoms to your doctor or Santa Monica spine surgeon by following the tips discussed below.
Intensity refers to the strength of the pain signals being sent from nerves in or around your spine to your brain and how you perceive them. You may be asked to indicate the intensity of your discomfort by choosing among pictures of facial expressions (The Wong-Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale) that range from “no hurt” to “hurts worst.” Alternatively, you may be asked to rate your pain using a sliding scale with different colors that represent pain intensity (color analog pain scale), or your doctor may use a standard 1–10 pain rating scale.
Use words and phrases like “dull” or “pins and needles sensations” to give a better indication of the type of back pain you’re experiencing. This information can be used to determine what testing may be needed. For instance, if you have “shooting pain,” this is an indication that a nearby nerve is being irritated or compressed, so a nerve conduction study or diagnostic injections might be appropriate.
If you’re having difficulty coming up with descriptive words, you may be given the McGill Pain Questionnaire, which groups words describing pain levels into three broad categories specific to:
• What your pain feels like
• How your spine-related discomfort changes over time
• The intensity of your pain
Just because spine-related pain is felt in one area doesn’t mean that’s where the source is, which is why it’s important to be specific about the location of your symptoms. For instance, if you have certain trigger points related to your back pain, you may have what’s called referred pain, which is pain felt in an area unrelated to its actual source.
If your symptoms include pain or numbness extending to an arm or leg, you could have nerve-based pain that extends along a nerve’s pathway (radiculopathy). Your doctor might make it easier to be specific about your pain’s location by giving you a body chart to mark.
It’s not unusual for people with back pain to have symptoms that fluctuate throughout the day. Talking about the times when your pain is less intense (background pain) and more severe (breakthrough pain) allows your doctor to suggest when it’s best to take medication so your discomfort can be effectively managed.
Does back pain affect your ability to do work-related tasks? Is your pain making it difficult to walk up stairs or go about your normal daily routine? These are the kinds of details you’ll want to mention when discussing how your back pain is affecting your quality of life. Because many different factors can affect back pain, it’s important to be transparent about other relevant details, such as:
Also consider keeping a journal detailing your symptoms for about a week or so prior to your appointment. Make note of the intensity of your discomfort, when your pain occurs most often, and the other factors discussed above. These additional details can lead to a more accurate diagnosis by helping your doctor identify patterns and develop a better understanding of your symptoms.
Because relief of back pain symptoms (especially those that are chronic or severe) may require specialized medical procedures such as spinal fusion alternatives, Santa Monica residents shouldn’t wait to seek advice from a spine specialist. If you’re experiencing severe or prolonged back pain, call on the spinal health pioneers at The Spine Institute. Our physicians lead the industry in diagnosing and treating back pain so patients can get back to enjoying life to the fullest. To schedule a consultation, give us a call today at 310-828-7757.