Ask Dr. Wahlquist: How Do You Diagnose Back Pain?
When we have back pain, we want to know why. Dr. Wahlquist explains that this simple question can have a complex answer.
Chances are, at some point during your life you are going to have back pain. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases reports that back pain is one of the most common medical problems in our country. When our back hurts, we want to know why. Spine specialist Dr. Trevor Wahlquist explains that this simple question can have a complex answer.
Multiple pain generators can cause back pain
“‘Why does my back hurt?’ This is one of the most common questions I hear from my patients,” says Dr. Wahlquist. “They understandably assume I’ll be able to look at an MRI and point to the source of the pain. Unfortunately, identifying the source of an individual’s pain can be much more complicated than patients realize.”
Many factors can contribute to back pain
“Part of the diagnosis challenge arises from the fact that back pain is multifactorial,” explains Dr. Wahlquist. “Pain can be generated by several different structures in the back and by other conditions in the body. Pain could be coming from your muscles, from pinched nerves, or from joints or discs in the spine. We might see four or five abnormal things on an MRI. All of them could be contributing to the patient’s pain. But it’s also possible that none of them are the cause of discomfort. Pain could be coming from kidney stones, the pancreas, or something else. A diagnosis begins with identification of the potential causes. And then, the process of elimination begins.”
Dr. Wahlquist’s crime-solving analogy
“Here’s how I explain back pain diagnosis to my patients,” says Dr. Wahlquist. “Neck and back pain have lots of potential suspects. My job, supported by the team of spine specialists at Summit, is to evaluate and eliminate suspects from the list until we can identify the bad guy with certainty.”
The good news about back pain
“Back pain is no fun,” says Dr. Wahlquist, “but if the pain is new and acute, there is some good news. We know that most sudden, or acute, back pain goes away within six weeks. During that period of initial pain, there are simple pain management steps that anyone can take. These include hot and cold packs, anti-inflammatories, proper diet, and gentle exercise.
“If the pain continues beyond three months, or if it becomes severely debilitating, I encourage people to come in and see me. Back pain can have complex causes, but our Summit spine team has comprehensive resources. We have a full range of diagnostic tools to narrow down the suspects and find the culprit. Then, we’ll design an appropriate treatment to address the issue and get you back to the lifestyle you enjoy.”
Summit Orthopedics offers comprehensive spine expertise
Summit Orthopedics’ Spine Care program is recognized by the National Committee for Quality Assurance for the comprehensive expertise of our patient-centered care. Our back specialists diagnose spine problems and design custom treatment plans built on a conservative, nonsurgical approach. Most patients find relief through treatments including guided injections, specialized physical therapy, biofeedback, exercise, activity modification, and medication. When conservative care does not relieve symptoms, our highly skilled surgeons offer proven, evidence-based surgical options. Together with you, we will determine the right course of action.
Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MN, Plymouth, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota.
More resources for you
- Meet Dr. Wahlquist
- Read about treatments for herniated discs
- Ask Dr. Clary: What is a vertebral compression fracture?
- Ask Dr. Sabers: When Should I Have My Spine Pain Medically Evaluated?
- Learn more about the conditions that cause back pain
- Ask Dr. Wahlquist: What Can I Expect During My First Visit?
- Check out the links between muscle injury and back pain
“Ensuring people are living healthy and active lifestyles is important to me. I strive to work together with patients to find non-operative and operative solutions for their pain, getting them back to the activities and the people that matter most to them.”
Roman Guerrero, M.D., one of Summit’s spine surgery experts, discusses the groundbreaking surgery — the first to use the Mazor X Stealth™ Edition Robotic Guidance Platform in an ambulatory surgery center.
Summit hand and upper extremity surgeon J.P. Delaney, M.D., explains the painful condition called “frozen shoulder” and shares what sufferers can do about it.
Summit hand and upper extremity surgeon — and enthusiastic fly fisherman — J.P. Delaney, M.D., tells you what you need to know about fishing if you’re concerned about hand, wrist, or shoulder injury.