Lower back pain is common. In fact, in the US it is a leading reason for a trip to see the doctor. There are many causes for back pain - some of them related to the spine and its components and others related to adjacent structures. Things like kidney stones and diverticulitis can present with back pain. There are also times when the source of back pain is never fully found.
When should you see your doctor and when is imaging for back pain appropriate?
The good thing about back pain is that the natural course for most is improvement of symptoms by around 4 weeks - whether you have specific treatment or not. If you have severe back pain, if it is associated with other symptoms like pain or nerve changes in one of your legs (numbness, burning sensation or tingling) or if symptoms are not improving, a visit to the doctor is in order.
There are published guidelines helping your healthcare provider decide if you will benefit from imaging of the spine. A careful history and physical are key.
Why not image everyone with back pain? Imaging the spine in the majority of us will show abnormalities - our discs (those cartilage cushions between the vertebral bodies) will begin to show changes as we get older. This is a natural age-related process related to being upright - the discs are only good for so many miles! The problem with imaging for back pain is we will often see abnormalities of the discs - some can even be large and impressive - but they do not always correlate with your symptoms. Imaging can lead to confusion and over-treatment, and for uncomplicated back pain will likely not affect how your back pain is managed.
When will imaging for back pain help most? Imaging is recommended for immediate evaluation of some patients with back pain with history or signs that might indicate a serious problem requiring immediate intervention. These include patients with history or signs that might make cancer (a RARE cause of back pain) more likely - things like a known cancer elsewhere in the body or significant weight loss. Signs that there might be an infection are important. Any symptoms that suggest there might be involvement of the nerves to the lower body may also warrant immediate imaging.
Imaging after a trial of physical therapy (usually after a 6 week period) may be indicated in patients who fail to show improvement or have worsening of symptoms. Imaging may also be performed if symptoms persist in patients with history of osteoporosis and concern for new fractures. How do we image and which test do we pick? Those will be explored in our next post on back pain!
So, if you have low back pain remember that in the vast majority of patients, symptoms will get better - although it may take a few weeks. A visit to your doctor will help determine if imaging is needed and will help in the management of your pain.
Image Credit: Low back pain by Harrygouvas via Wikimedia Commons Copyright Creative CommonsAttribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Originally published 56/14 on diagnosticimagingcenterskc.com