Consisting of 33 bones and an assortment of discs, joints, and tissues, the human spine is more complex than most people realize, and this doesn’t even count the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that provide direct or indirect support to the backbone or the many nerves in and around it. There are a variety of things that may affect any of these structures at any given time, which is why spine pain is notoriously difficult to diagnose. Here are some more specific reasons it’s not always easy to diagnose spine pain.
Symptoms Often Overlap
It’s fairly obvious when someone has whiplash or a sprained ankle, but not all symptoms associated with spine pain are this clear cut. For instance, lower back pain is difficult to diagnose because symptoms can suggest many different sources. Most instances of lower back pain are due to a herniated disc. However, symptoms such as radiating pain felt in the thighs or legs may also be caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve, irritation of the piriformis muscle, or even issues with the tailbone (coccyx) at the bottom of the spine. Help your Los Angeles spine surgeon narrow down the cause of spine pain by:
- Being as descriptive as possible with symptoms
- Keeping a pain journal to document when symptoms occur or when they are severe to better identify likely triggers and sources
- Seeking more than one opinion since one doctor may overlook possible pain sources
Everyone Responds to Treatment Differently
Just because a diagnosis is made doesn’t mean you’ll respond well to standard treatment recommendations. With something like disc herniation, you might respond differently to treatment if the source of your compression is the sciatic nerve than you would if your symptoms were caused by direct pressure on the spinal cord or a bone spur. This is why treatment can sometimes be a trial and error process. In some instances, another attempt may be need to be made to pinpoint the source of your spine pain more accurately to fine-tune treatment suggestions. The source of your pain may also affect your response to any of the following treatment recommendations:
- Physical therapy – Every patient has different physical abilities and possible underlying health issues and sources of spine pain that could affect responses to any type of physical therapy.
- Medications – Painkillers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work differently for each patient. It’s also entirely possible a source of your pain was overlooked and is not being treated by your medications.
- Exercise – Just because your friend who does yoga got rid of his or her back pain doesn’t mean you’ll see the same results. You may benefit more from water-based exercises or low-impact aerobics because the source of your pain is different.
Spine Pain Has Many Contributing Factors
Not all contributing factors to back pain can be seen on an X-ray or MRI scan. For instance, you might be going through a particularly stressful time at work, so you start snacking on foods you don’t normally indulge in as much. The combination of added stress and unhealthy food options could be what’s contributing to your discomfort or making it worse. Other times, factors that affect your spine pain may include:
- Your regular sleep habits
- How well you’re able to control underlying health issues like diabetes
- Your posture
- The kind of shoes you normally wear
Not every instance of spine pain will require a visit to your doctor. However, if home remedies, a few days of rest, and over-the-counter painkillers aren’t helping, it’s time to see what’s going on. Most of the time, an accurate diagnosis can be made based on symptoms experienced and medical history. Additional diagnostic methods that may be recommended include image tests, nerve conduction studies, and epidural injections or nerve blocks to narrow down a source of pain.
In some instances of severe spine pain, doctors may recommend undergoing minimally invasive back surgery. Los Angeles residents can put their trust in Dr. Hyun Bae and his team of trained professionals at The Spine Institute. If you’d like to schedule an appointment, call our office today at 310-828-7757.