About 8 in 10 people will experience back pain at some point in their lives, which can make it a troublesome issue to diagnose and treat. Because back pain is often vastly different from patient to patient, your particular back pain needs to be closely evaluated and treated. An important part of determining your diagnosis would be the quality of the back pain you experience.
So how would you describe your back pain to your doctor? Doctors will typically look for three things when testing back pain: location, intensity, and frequency. Once they have a clear idea of these three facets, they have a better chance of diagnosing the exact cause of your back pain and how to treat it.
Doctors rely on first-hand patient accounts of their back pain – the more detailed their description of the sensation, the better. A patient’s experience with back pain can give clues on the causes, other risk factors, and potential treatment options. These factors are also the primary sources of the symptoms and sensations that you experience with back pain, so it’s important to be as elaborate as possible when you describe them to your doctor.
There are three things that doctors will often zero in on when asking you about your back pain:
Because of the interconnected structure of the bones, tendons, muscles, and nerves around your back, it can be difficult to isolate where exactly your pain is coming from. Even if you have a fair idea of where your pain is located, the actual source of your pain may be elsewhere. This is particularly common for back pain that involves nerve damage, or pain that travels down the leg.
One reason location matters is that the location of your back pain can also shift depending on your movement, or even depending on what time of day. Isolating the location of your back pain is an excellent way for your doctor to narrow down the diagnosis, especially if the location of your pain is close to important internal organs. Other places like neck pain and shoulder pain are also crucial areas to pay attention to.
Doctors may also ask their patients about the quality of their pain, or the characteristic of the back pain that they’re experiencing. Being as descriptive as possible with your back pain can help doctors decide what tests they may use to diagnose you, or any medications they may recommend helping manage the pain in the meantime. Any sensation that accompanies your pain is also critical information your doctor can use to make a diagnosis.
Your doctor may ask you to use the McGill Pain Questionnaire for a list of descriptive words you can use for your back pain. You may also use a “pain journal” with the McGill Pain Questionnaire for a more comprehensive overview of your back pain, noting its changes over time, activity, and treatment. Typical words to describe your pain can be “flickering, burning, sharp, lingering, or rhythmic.” If you can’t find the words to describe your pain, you can always consult your doctor.
Back pain can be categorized as chronic or acute. The duration and triggers of your back pain are important details that can help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis while serving as guides for you to improve your management of the pain before and during treatment. This is especially important with instances of chronic pain, since they’re more likely to be an indicator of a serious condition.
The frequency of your pain will also matter if your doctor prescribes you medication. Even the smallest details like the time of day your pain usually flares up or how long the pain lasts when it happens can be useful information for your doctor. The frequency of your pain is a symptom that your doctors will pay attention to the most, since this can help inform them about the urgency of the care you require.
Describing your pain may seem a bit difficult, especially if you’ve never experienced back pain before. But doctors can benefit greatly from an accurate description of back pain for two primary reasons: diagnosis and severity.
Back pain can be difficult to describe because it can be triggered by so many things. While doctors may make do with medical tests and physical examination, they still rely on patient feedback to understand the circumstances of their back pain fully. Any missing pieces of information about that pain can lead to a misdiagnosis which might aggravate the condition instead of curing it.
With the myriad causes of back pain, it’s also essential to differentiate a serious case from a trivial condition. Anything can affect your spine, ranging from relatively benign to serious causes like how much time you spend sitting down in a day to a tumor pressing on your nerve. Again, it’s the subtle differences in quality of pain that can clue in doctors if your condition needs to be treated aggressively.
Aside from the three factors discussed earlier, your doctor may also ask these questions about your back pain:
Leading an active lifestyle, drinking alcohol, smoking, or diet can all play a role in triggering back pain. This is particularly apparent if the cause is obesity, since the spine no longer has the strength to support the body like it should. Aside from asking about your diet and lifestyle, your doctor may also ask if you’ve changed your routine, medical history, or if anything specific has felt different about your activities.
Depression and psychosomatic disorders can all trigger back pain, especially if the patient is taking medications. Because your nerves all cluster at your spine, you can easily trigger back pain from hormone changes that are affected by your mental health.
It’s also possible that there may be no apparent cause for your back pain. In cases like these, your doctor will ask if any significant event in your life has caused you stress, or if you’ve started or stopped doing a repeated activity. Your back is very sensitive to changes in routine, which can cause mild to severe back pain.
One of the best things that patients can do to ensure that they get accurate and fast treatment for their back pain is to have a clear conversation with their doctor that describes their pain accurately. While it’s possible to acquire an analysis based on tests alone, patients should also describe the back pain so physicians can treat their pain effectively.
If you’re experiencing back pain of any kind, it could be the beginning of a more serious health condition that needs to be treated immediately. With years of experience with diagnosing and treating spinal conditions, the Spine And Rehab Group can quickly diagnose and treat your back pain. Visit one of our New York clinics today, or schedule a consultation with us online.