Tests and diagnosis

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Diagnostic tests aren't usually necessary to confirm the cause of your back pain. However, if you do see your doctor for back pain, he or she will examine your back and assess your ability to sit, stand, walk and lift your legs. Your doctor may also test your reflexes with a rubber reflex hammer.

These assessments help determine where the pain comes from, how much you can move before pain forces you to stop and whether you have muscle spasms. They will also help rule out more-serious causes of back pain.

If there is reason to suspect a specific condition may be causing your back pain, your doctor may order one or more tests:

  • X-ray. These images show the alignment of your bones and whether you have arthritis or broken bones. X-ray images won't directly show problems with your spinal cord, muscles, nerves or disks.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scans. These scans can generate images that may reveal herniated disks or problems with bones, muscles, tissue, tendons, nerves, ligaments and blood vessels.
  • Bone scan. In rare cases, your doctor may use a bone scan to look for bone tumors or compression fractures caused by osteoporosis.
  • Nerve studies (electromyography, or EMG). This test measures the electrical impulses produced by the nerves and the responses of your muscles. This test can confirm nerve compression caused by herniated disks or narrowing of your spinal canal (spinal stenosis).
Sep. 11, 2012

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