A thorough medical history and physical exam can usually identify any dangerous conditions or family history that may be associated with back pain. The patient describes the onset, site, and severity of the pain; duration of symptoms and any limitations in movement; and history of previous episodes or any health conditions that might be related to the pain. The physician will examine the back and conduct neurologic tests to determine the cause of pain and appropriate treatment. Blood tests may also be ordered. Imaging tests may be necessary to diagnose tumors or other possible sources of the pain.
A variety of diagnostic methods are available to confirm the cause of low back pain:
X-ray imaging includes conventional and enhanced methods that can help diagnose the cause and site of back pain. A conventional x-ray, often the first imaging technique used, looks for broken bones or an injured vertebra. A technician passes a concentrated beam of low-dose ionized radiation through the back and takes pictures that, within minutes, clearly show the bony structure and any vertebral misalignment or fractures. Tissue masses such as injured muscles and ligaments or painful conditions such as a bulging disc are not visible on conventional x-rays. This fast, noninvasive, painless procedure is usually performed in a doctoris office or at a clinic.
Discography involves the injection of a special contrast dye into a spinal disc thought to be causing low back pain. The dye outlines the damaged areas on x-rays taken following the injection. This procedure is often suggested for patients who are considering lumbar surgery or whose pain has not responded to conventional treatments. Myelograms also enhance the diagnostic imaging of an x-ray. In this procedure, the contrast dye is injected into the spinal canal, allowing spinal cord and nerve compression caused by herniated discs or fractures to be seen on an x-ray.
Computerized tomography (CT) is a quick and painless process used when disc rupture, spinal stenosis, or damage to vertebrae is suspected as a cause of low back pain. X-rays are passed through the body at various angles and are detected by a computerized scanner to produce two-dimensional slices (1 mm each) of internal structures of the back. This diagnostic exam is generally conducted at an imaging center or hospital.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to evaluate the lumbar region for bone degeneration or injury or disease in tissues and nerves, muscles, ligaments, and blood vessels. MRI scanning equipment creates a magnetic field around the body strong enough to temporarily realign water molecules in the tissues. Radio waves are then passed through the body to detect the "relaxation" of the molecules back to a random alignment and trigger a resonance signal at different angles within the body. A computer processes this resonance into either a three-dimensional picture or a two-dimensional "slice" of the tissue being scanned, and differentiates between bone, soft tissues and fluid-filled spaces by their water content and structural properties. This noninvasive procedure is often used to identify a condition requiring prompt surgical treatment.
Electrodiagnostic procedures include electromyography (EMG), nerve conduction studies, and evoked potential (EP) studies. EMG assesses the electrical activity in a nerve and can detect if muscle weakness results from injury or a problem with the nerves that control the muscles. Very fine needles are inserted in muscles to measure electrical activity transmitted from the brain or spinal cord to a particular area of the body. With nerve conduction studies the doctor uses two sets of electrodes (similar to those used during an electrocardiogram) that are placed on the skin over the muscles. The first set gives the patient a mild shock to stimulate the nerve that runs to a particular muscle. The second set of electrodes is used to make a recording of the nerveis electrical signals, and from this information the doctor can determine if there is nerve damage. EP tests also involve two sets of electrodes o one set to stimulate a sensory nerve and the other set on the scalp to record the speed of nerve signal transmissions to the brain.
Bone scans are used to diagnose and monitor infection, fracture, or disorders in the bone. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into the bloodstream and will collect in the bones, particularly in areas with some abnormality. Scanner-generated images are sent to a computer to identify specific areas of irregular bone metabolism or abnormal blood flow, as well as to measure levels of joint disease.
Thermography involves the use of infrared sensing devices to measure small temperature changes between the two sides of the body or the temperature of a specific organ. Thermography may be used to detect the presence or absence of nerve root compression.
Ultrasound imaging, also called ultrasound scanning or sonography, uses high-frequency sound waves to obtain images inside the body. The sound wave echoes are recorded and displayed as a real-time visual image. Ultrasound imaging can show tears in ligaments, muscles, tendons, and other soft tissue masses in the back.
Most low back pain can be treated without surgery. Treatment involves using analgesics, reducing inflammation, restoring proper function and strength to the back, and preventing recurrence of the injury. Most patients with back pain recover without residual functional loss. Patients should contact a doctor if there is not a noticeable reduction in pain and inflammation after 72 hours of self-care.
Although ice and heat (the use of cold and hot compresses) have never been scientifically proven to quickly resolve low back injury, compresses may help reduce pain and inflammation and allow greater mobility for some individuals. As soon as possible following trauma, patients should apply a cold pack or a cold compress (such as a bag of ice or bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel) to the tender spot several times a day for up to 20 minutes. After 2 to 3 days of cold treatment, they should then apply heat (such as a heating lamp or hot pad) for brief periods to relax muscles and increase blood flow. Warm baths may also help relax muscles. Patients should avoid sleeping on a heating pad, which can cause burns and lead to additional tissue damage.
1-2 days at most. A 1996 Finnish study found that persons who continued their activities without bed rest following onset of low back pain appeared to have better back flexibility than those who rested in bed for a week. Other studies suggest that bed rest alone may make back pain worse and can lead to secondary complications such as depression, decreased muscle tone, and blood clots in the legs. Patients should resume activities as soon as possible. At night or during rest, patients should lie on one side, with a pillow between the knees (some doctors suggest resting on the back and putting a pillow beneath the knees).
Exercise may be the most effective way to speed recovery from low back pain and help strengthen back and abdominal muscles. Maintaining and building muscle strength is particularly important for persons with skeletal irregularities. Doctors and physical therapists can provide a list of gentle exercises that help keep muscles moving and speed the recovery process. A routine of back-healthy activities may include stretching exercises, swimming, walking, and movement therapy to improve coordination and develop proper posture and muscle balance. Yoga is another way to gently stretch muscles and ease pain. Any mild discomfort felt at the start of these exercises should disappear as muscles become stronger. But if pain is more than mild and lasts more than 15 minutes during exercise, patients should stop exercising and contact a doctor.
Medications are often used to treat acute and chronic low back pain. Effective pain relief may involve a combination of prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies. Patients should always check with a doctor before taking drugs for pain relief. Certain medicines, even those sold over the counter, are unsafe during pregnancy, may conflict with other medications, may cause side effects including drowsiness, or may lead to liver damage.
- Over-the-counter analgesics, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen), are taken orally to reduce stiffness, swelling, and inflammation and to ease mild to moderate low back pain. Counter-irritants applied topically to the skin as a cream or spray stimulate the nerve endings in the skin to provide feelings of warmth or cold and dull the sense of pain. Topical analgesics can also reduce inflammation and stimulate blood flow. Many of these compounds contain salicylates, the same ingredient found in oral pain medications containing aspirin.
- Anticonvulsants o drugs primarily used to treat seizures o may be useful in treating certain types of nerve pain and may also be prescribed with analgesics.
- Some antidepressants, particularly tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline and desipramine, have been shown to relieve pain (independent of their effect on depression) and assist with sleep. Antidepressants alter levels of brain chemicals to elevate mood and dull pain signals. Many of the new antidepressants, such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are being studied for their effectiveness in pain relief.
- Opioids such as codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine are often prescribed to manage severe acute and chronic back pain but should be used only for a short period of time and under a physicianis supervision. Side effects can include drowsiness, decreased reaction time, impaired judgment, and potential for addiction. Many specialists are convinced that chronic use of these drugs is detrimental to the back pain patient, adding to depression and even increasing pain.
Spinal manipulation is literally a "hands-on" approach in which trained specialists (such as chiropractors, osteopaths, and massage therapists) use leverage and a series of exercises to adjust spinal structures and restore back mobility. These specialists do not prescribe drugs or use surgery in their treatment of low back pain.
When back pain does not respond to more conventional approaches, patients may consider the following options:
Acupuncture involves the insertion of needles the width of a human hair along precise points throughout the body. Practitioners believe this process triggers the release of naturally occurring painkilling molecules called peptides and keeps the bodyis normal flow of energy unblocked. Clinical studies are measuring the effectiveness of acupuncture in comparison to more conventional procedures in the treatment of acute low back pain.
Biofeedback is used to treat many acute pain problems, most notably back pain and headache. Using a special electronic machine, the patient is trained to become aware of, to follow, and to gain control over certain bodily functions, including muscle tension, heart rate, and skin temperature (by controlling local blood flow patterns). The patient can then learn to effect a change in his or her response to pain, for example, by using relaxation techniques. Biofeedback is often used in combination with other treatment methods, generally without side effects.
Interventional therapy can ease chronic pain by blocking nerve conduction between specific areas of the body and the brain. Approaches range from injections of local anesthetics, steroids, or narcotics into affected soft tissues, joints, or nerve roots to more complex nerve blocks and spinal cord stimulation. When extreme pain is involved, low doses of drugs may be administered by catheter directly into the spinal cord. Chronic use of steroid injections may lead to increased functional impairment.
Traction involves the use of weights to apply constant or intermittent force to gradually "pull" the skeletal structure into better alignment. Traction is not recommended for treating acute low back symptoms.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is administered by a battery-powered device that sends mild electric pulses along nerve fibers to block pain signals to the brain. Small electrodes placed on the skin at or near the site of pain generate nerve impulses that block incoming pain signals from the peripheral nerves. TENS may also help stimulate the brainis production of endorphins (chemicals that have pain-relieving properties).
Ultrasound is a noninvasive therapy used to warm the bodyis internal tissues, which causes muscles to relax. Sound waves pass through the skin and into the injured muscles and other soft tissues.
Minimally invasive outpatient treatments to seal fractures of the vertebrae caused by osteoporosis include vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty. Vertebroplasty uses three-dimensional imaging to help a doctor guide a fine needle into the vertebral body. A glue-like epoxy is injected, which quickly hardens to stabilize and strengthen the bone and provide immediate pain relief. In kyphoplasty, prior to injecting the epoxy, a special balloon is inserted and gently inflated to restore height to the bone and reduce spinal deformity.
In the most serious cases, when the condition does not respond to other therapies, surgery may relieve pain caused by back problems or serious musculoskeletal injuries. Some surgical procedures may be performed in a doctoris office under local anesthesia, while others require hospitalization. It may be months following surgery before the patient is fully healed, and he or she may suffer permanent loss of flexibility. Since invasive back surgery is not always successful, it should be performed only in patients with progressive neurologic disease or damage to the peripheral nerves.
Discectomy is one of the more common ways to remove pressure on a nerve root from a bulging disc or bone spur. During the procedure the surgeon takes out a small piece of the lamina (the arched bony roof of the spinal canal) to remove the obstruction below.
Foraminotomy is an operation that "cleans out" or enlarges the bony hole (foramen) where a nerve root exits the spinal canal. Bulging discs or joints thickened with age can cause narrowing of the space through which the spinal nerve exits and can press on the nerve, resulting in pain, numbness, and weakness in an arm or leg. Small pieces of bone over the nerve are removed through a small slit, allowing the surgeon to cut away the blockage and relieve the pressure on the nerve.
IntraDiscal Electrothermal Therapy (IDET) uses thermal energy to treat pain resulting from a cracked or bulging spinal disc. A special needle is inserted via a catheter into the disc and heated to a high temperature for up to 20 minutes. The heat thickens and seals the disc wall and reduces inner disc bulge and irritation of the spinal nerve.
Nucleoplasty uses radiofrequency energy to treat patients with low back pain from contained, or mildly herniated, discs. Guided by x-ray imaging, a wand-like instrument is inserted through a needle into the disc to create a channel that allows inner disc material to be removed. The wand then heats and shrinks the tissue, sealing the disc wall. Several channels are made depending on how much disc material needs to be removed.
Radiofrequency lesioning is a procedure using electrical impulses to interrupt nerve conduction (including the conduction of pain signals) for 6 to12 months. Using x-ray guidance, a special needle is inserted into nerve tissue in the affected area. Tissue surrounding the needle tip is heated for 90-120 seconds, resulting in localized destruction of the nerves.
Spinal fusion is used to strengthen the spine and prevent painful movements. The spinal disc(s) between two or more vertebrae is removed and the adjacent vertebrae are fused by bone grafts and/or metal devices secured by screws. Spinal fusion may result in some loss of flexibility in the spine and requires a long recovery period to allow the bone grafts to grow and fuse the vertebrae together.
Spinal laminectomy (also known as spinal decompression) involves the removal of the lamina (usually both sides) to increase the size of the spinal canal and relieve pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots.
Other surgical procedures to relieve severe chronic pain include rhizotomy, in which the nerve root close to where it enters the spinal cord is cut to block nerve transmission and all senses from the area of the body experiencing pain; cordotomy, where bundles of nerve fibers on one or both sides of the spinal cord are intentionally severed to stop the transmission of pain signals to the brain; and dorsal root entry zone operation, or DREZ, in which spinal neurons transmitting the patientis pain are destroyed surgically.
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