Talking With Your Doctor About Back Pain

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Male Patient with Back Ache

More than 13 million U.S. doctor visits per year focus on diagnosing back pain. If you’ve booked one of them, take some time to prepare for your appointment. Discussing your back pain symptoms openly and thoroughly gives your doctor the best chance of finding the root cause—and a treatment that brings relief.

Describe the pain.

To find a possible cause, your doctor will want to know as much as possible about your back pain symptoms. Be prepared to explain:

  • Exactly where it hurts

  • If the pain comes and goes or stays with you all the time

  • If the pain is stabbing, throbbing, sharp or dull

  • The severity of the pain, on a scale of zero (no pain) to 10 (as bad as you can imagine)

  • What makes the pain better or worse

  • When you feel the pain—is it worst in the morning, evening, or after activity?

  • Whether it came on suddenly or worsened slowly over time

For instance, you might say, “I feel a dull, aching pain right in the center of my back almost constantly. On a scale of zero to 10, it ranges from 3 to 5. It feels worse when I get up and after I sit for a long time, but improves when I take a hot shower. ”Try keeping a pain diary in the days or weeks before your doctor’s appointment. Record the details of each episode of back pain as you endure it. Sharing the journal with your doctor can answer many questions about your condition. It may also allow more time to discuss causes and treatment during the office visit. Keep the journal going: after your first visit, it can help you and your doctor determine if your treatment plan needs adjustment.

Discuss all your symptoms.

Back pain often goes hand in hand with other health problems. Alert your doctor to other issues you may have including:

These signs are red flags for more serious health problems, including degenerative disc disease, cancer, and spinal infections. Fast treatment can help prevent your condition from getting worse.

Disclose your history.

Knowing whether you’ve had back pain or other health problems in the past can change the way your doctor approaches evaluation and treatment. For instance, if you had cancer in the past, your doctor may want to use an imaging test to make sure tumors aren’t responsible for new back pain. Or if you’ve struggled with substance abuse, she might advise different options other than medication.

Keep records of all your past illnesses and treatments, and share them with your doctor. Be open and honest—your doctor won’t judge your past. Having all the information about your health helps your doctor plan a path to a pain-free future.

Your family’s health history matters, too. Tell your doctor if a close relative has arthritis or other conditions that can affect the spine.

Don’t rush into testing

In some cases, imaging tests like X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans can give your doctor important information that helps diagnose the cause of your pain. But often, the results aren’t conclusive and don’t change the rate at which your pain improves. And they can pose risks, including radiation exposure and needless anxiety and costs.

Your doctor will likely order one or more tests right away if you have other severe symptoms, such as numbness or tingling in your legs, or certain other risk factors (such as a recent infection). Make sure you discuss the benefits and risks of testing with your doctor before proceeding. 

Explore all your options

In many cases, back pain goes away with time. Other treatment options include surgery, physical therapy, and alternative interventions like yoga, massage, acupuncture and relaxation. Tell your doctor about back pain treatments you’ve already tried, whether they worked or not, and if you plan to continue using them.

Then, ask your doctor to list all the potential treatments for your pain, along with the benefits and risks of each. In most cases, you’ll want to consider invasive treatments like surgery only if medication, exercise, and other conservative therapies are not working for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Apr 24
  1. Back pain. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Back_Pain/default.asp.
  2. Chronic low back pain. North American Spine Society. http://www.knowyourback.org/Pages/SpinalConditions/LowBackPain/Chronic.aspx
  3. Dealing with chronic pain. Department of Veterans Affairs. http://www.warrelatedillness.va.gov/education/factsheets/chronic-pain.pdf.
  4. Imaging tests for lower-back pain. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://www.choosingwisely.org/doctor-patient-lists/imaging-tests-for-lower-back-pain/.
  5. Low back pain. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00311.
  6. National ambulatory medical care survey: 2010 summary tables. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ahcd/namcs_summary/2010_namcs_web_tables.pdf.
  7. Pain. National Institute on Aging. http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/pain
  8. Preparing for your health care visit. American Chronic Pain Association. http://www.theacpa.org/uploads/documents/ACPA_Fibro_Survey_prepare_for_visit.pdf.  
  9. Talking to your doctor about pain. New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. www.oasas.state.ny.us
  10. Your health: how to talk to your doctor about pain. American College of Cardiology. https://www.cardiosmart.org/~/media/Documents/Fact%20Sheets/en/tx4436.ashx
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