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Back pain

Diagnosis of back pain

When you meet with an orthopedic doctor at Dignity Health, you will be assessed for back pain. Your doctor will go over your symptoms, medical history, perform a physical exam, and ask about any recent physical activity or injuries that may be causing your back pain.

Imaging tests, like an x-ray, MRI, or bone scan, may help your doctor make or rule out a diagnosis, such as a herniated disc or spinal tumor.


Dignity Health provides comprehensive care for back pain as part of our orthopedic services.

Most cases of lower back pain go away on their own within a few weeks. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines, stretching, hot and cold therapy, and massage can help ease your recovery.

For severe or persistent (chronic) low back pain, your doctor may prescribe prescription medications for pain and to reduce inflammation, physical therapy, or a back brace. Generally, back surgery is the last option after trying nonsurgical treatment for six to 12 months.

At Dignity Health, your back pain treatment may involve a variety of measures, such as basic care at home, pain medications, and back exercises to strengthen the muscles that support your back. In some cases, surgery may be a beneficial solution for easing pain and discomfort.


The good news is that the majority of people with acute (sudden onset) back pain see their symptoms dissipate within three weeks, and almost all (more than 90 percent) recover within three months. Most of these cases are the result of minor strains and injuries that heal on their own with pain management and rest.

Other causes of back pain, such as kidney infections, spinal tumors, and arthritis, are infrequent and account for only a tiny percentage of all low back pain.

Chronic (slow onset or long term) back pain is a more complex disorder that may require more aggressive treatment. Many patients can manage this condition over time with techniques such as acupuncture, medication, and strengthening the core and spine muscles. Chronic back pain also accounts for only a very small percentage of back pain cases. 

When to seek emergency care for back pain

In some rare instances, back pain can signal a life-threatening condition such as a heart attack. You should call 911 or seek emergency care for any type of back pain combined with stomach, jaw, or chest pain, or difficulty breathing.

Also, back pain occasionally indicates other, more severe conditions. You should seek emergency care if your back pain is causing you to lose control of your bladder or bowels, or causing worsening numbness or weakness in your arms or legs. This may occur if the nerves in your spine are compressed.

You should also seek urgent (same day) care if you:

  • Cannot walk or stand
  • Have back pain in addition to pain with urination (which could indicate a kidney infection)
  • Have symptoms of infection, such as a fever
  • Have any signs of spinal deformity (which could indicate a spinal fracture)

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.