Finding the Right Doctor for Your Back Pain

Back pain affects over 80% of adults at some point in their lives. From sharp, stabbing pains to dull, chronic aches, back pain can severely impact your quality of life. With many different specialists treating back pain, it can get confusing determining the right doctor to see. Here’s help on finding the appropriate physician for your type of back pain.

For general back pain, see your primary care physician first. Primary care doctors like family physicians and internists can diagnose and treat uncomplicated back pain. They will perform a physical exam and neurological tests to pinpoint the cause, which is often a strained muscle, bulging disc, arthritis, or other non-threatening issue. Primary doctors can prescribe pain relievers, home treatments like ice/heat, and gentle activities to help relieve discomfort. If medications and home care don’t help within a couple weeks, they can refer you to a back specialist.

See a chiropractor for back pain caused by spinal misalignment or joint dysfunction. Chiropractors focus on the muscles, joints, and nerves of the back. They use manipulations, stretches, and massage to adjust the spinal vertebrae and improve alignment. Research shows chiropractic care can effectively treat acute low back pain from strains or minor injuries. It’s best for new-onset, non-chronic back pain without an underlying condition.

For severe or worsening back pain, see an orthopedic specialist. Orthopedists treat injuries and conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system. They can order MRIs or CT scans to pinpoint the cause, provide injectable steroids or pain medication, and determine if surgery is warranted for issues like herniated discs. Physical therapy is often part of the treatment plan as well. See an orthopedist if over-the-counter meds and initial doctor’s treatment don’t improve constant back pain.

Neurologists treat back pain that radiates or shoots down the legs or arms, known as radiculopathy. This type of pain is often caused by compression or inflammation of the spinal nerves. Neurologists conduct nerve testing, prescribe medications for nerve-related pain, and determine if procedures like epidural steroid injections may help. See a neurologist immediately if your back pain causes weakness, numbness or tingling in the limbs.

Ask your regular doctor for a referral to physical therapy (PT) which can be extremely beneficial for back pain. A physical therapist performs hands-on joint and soft tissue mobilization, stretching, strengthening exercises, and more tailored to your condition. PT teaches techniques to improve posture, proper lifting mechanics, and manage activities of daily living. It helps safely rebuild mobility and strength. PT is critical after back surgery or injuries to help recovery.

In summary, primary care physicians can treat uncomplicated back pain at the initial stage. Chiropractors help with acute spinal misalignment issues. See an orthopedist or neurologist for severe, chronic or worsening pain. And physical therapy plays an important role strengthening the back and restoring function. Pay attention to your symptoms and don’t delay seeing the appropriate doctor to get your back pain properly diagnosed and treated.