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.

back pain

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.”

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  • Trevor Wahlquist, M.D.

    “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.”

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