Doctors diagnose back pain using several techniques, including X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests, computerized tomography (CT) scans and nerve tests. Before ordering diagnostic tests, physicians consider several factors, such as location of injury, type and severity of pain and patients' medical histories. This information helps doctors identify the most appropriate diagnostic tests and prevent unnecessary testing.
The cause of back pain varies widely, and may stem from nerves, muscles, tendons or bones. When patients present to doctors with back pain, doctors perform several actions to determine the cause. They might question patients about when pain appears and becomes most severe, such as when sitting, standing or turning. Doctors might have patients stand, sit, walk and perform other activities to pinpoint location of pain, identify potentially serious causes of back pain and determine severity of pain.
When suspecting bone problems, doctors may order X-rays. These images show the spinal column, helping doctors look for fractures and bone abnormalities. MRI and CT scans show more comprehensive images of the spine, including tissues, tendons and ligaments. According to the Mayo Clinic, these scans might show herniated disks or problems with blood vessels, nerves, muscles and other spinal structures. Bone scans also help identify bone abnormalities, including osteoporosis. Nerve tests study the interaction between nerve impulses and spinal muscles, identifying problems such as nerve compression and narrowing of the spinal canal.