Before your doctor orders specific tests, he or she will ask you a series of questions. These questions will help the doctor choose which test is right for you and might also help diagnose the problem.
Your doctor might ask questions such as:
- Where are you feeling the pain?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how severe is the pain?
- Is it a constant pain? Or is it a throbbing, shooting, or occasional pain?
- Does the pain get worse at a particular time of day or in a specific position?
- Are you feeling a tingling sensation in your arms, legs, fingers, or toes?
- How long have you been experiencing this pain?
- Does the pain seem to get better or worse after exercise?
- Are you getting headaches more frequently than usual?
Your doctor will also likely ask you to describe what was happening or what you were doing when you first noticed the pain.
Part of the difficulty of diagnosing back pain is a lack of information. Many patients don’t recall or don’t know the answers to many of these questions, which makes the doctor’s job harder.
Be sure to tell your doctor everything you can remember. It might help to keep notes about when the pain occurs, the intensity, and the location prior to the day of your appointment. Your doctor will need all the information available, and you never know which detail will prove most important.
After talking to you about your back pain and when it first started, your doctor will likely order some tests. Imaging tests will give your doctor a picture of what is going on inside your body. These tests might include X-rays, MRI, or CT or CAT scans.
While these tests can help diagnose the cause of back pain, they can also be inconclusive. Also, because X-rays, MRI images, and CAT scans are not photographs, they require a great deal of skill to interpret. As with looking at any image, opinions about test results are subjective, so two different doctors might have two different opinions about one image.
After your doctor has completed imaging tests, he or she will propose some treatment options. This is the trial-and-error phase. Your doctor might prescribe one treatment and have you report back in a few days or weeks to see if it has worked. If it has not, there might be another treatment to try.
Even if your doctor correctly identifies the source of your back pain, not all treatment options will work for you. Everyone reacts differently to treatments. Also, pain is a subjective experience. What may be a 5 on a pain scale for you might be a 10 for someone else. This complicates matters.
For the best experience in diagnosing your back pain, be open with your doctor about what you are feeling, what improves or increases the pain, and when you begin to feel different types of pain or relief. You and your doctor are in this together, so work together to find the solution.