Back pain is something nearly everyone will experience at one time or another. Even though back pain is common, it’s not always easy to accurately pinpoint the true source of spine-related symptoms. Why can it be so difficult to accurately diagnose back pain? Here are four reasons this may be the case.
Many of the common symptoms associated with back pain are vague or associated with many different possible sources, which can make diagnosis a trial-and-error process. For example, lower back pain could be related to any of the following issues:
• A structural problem with the spine
• Overstretched lower back muscles
• Spinal disc problems
• Spinal bone (vertebrae) or joint (facet joint) problems
• Abdominal problems not related to the spine at all
In some situations, back pain may originate from two different sources. For instance, you might have symptoms related to a herniated disc and abnormal spinal narrowing (spinal stenosis). If this is the case, you may still experience discomfort if both sources haven’t been discovered, and this will affect the treatment you’ll receive. For example, if you have spinal stenosis, your spine specialist may recommend an endoscopic foraminotomy. Santa Monica patients who undergo this procedure experience the removal of any debris (e.g., bone spurs, scar tissue, or ligament overgrowth) that’s causing the narrowing.
There’s no single diagnostic test that will accurately diagnose back pain. And in some instances, tests such as nerve block injections could produce false negative or positive results. Test results are also open to interpretation, which is why you may get two different diagnoses from two different doctors.
Still, it’s possible to diagnose certain sources of back pain, such as sciatic nerve pain related to a herniated disc, fairly accurately. This is usually done with a series of patient-specific questions, a review of symptoms, and follow-up tests to confirm what’s suspected.
Two people can have the same source of back pain and describe their symptoms in different ways. For example, discomfort from a herniated disc or strained back muscles may produce only mild symptoms in one patient. However, another patient may report debilitating pain.
Back pain is highly subjective and based on how you interpret your symptoms at the time you’re examined. Therefore, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs could produce relief when your symptoms are mild, but you may end up benefiting more from epidural injections or other treatments if your discomfort becomes more severe.
There are times when you may receive an accurate diagnosis but your symptoms are still coming back or even worsening. If this happens, there may be lifestyle factors that are affecting your spine and its supporting parts. Common culprits include:
• Poor posture
• A generally inactive (sedentary) lifestyle
• Smoking and/or excessive alcohol consumption
• Stress, anxiety, and other psychological factors
• Lack of sufficient sleep
It can also be difficult to diagnose back pain because of the brief duration of a typical doctor’s visit—the average is about 15 minutes. But you may be able to overcome this additional hindrance by keeping a journal for a week or so prior to your appointment so your doctor can see a more detailed description of your symptoms. Also, be honest about lifestyle-related factors that may be affecting your spine so you can receive a treatment plan that takes this information into consideration.
No matter what type of back pain you’re experiencing, it’s a good idea to see your doctor or a Santa Monica spine surgeon if you have spine-related discomfort that’s getting progressively worse or doesn’t go away after a few weeks. Knowing the actual source of your back pain is the most effective way to determine the proper method of treatment, so reach out to the pioneering spinal specialists at The Spine Institute. We use the most innovative methods to diagnose and treat all types of back pain. Call one of our friendly representatives today at 310-828-7757 to schedule an appointment.