Treating Back Pain: Meet the Specialists
Back problems and discomfort symptoms are a common ailment that many types of healthcare providers diagnose and treat it. Can knowing a little about what each back pain specialist does and what they have to offer help in choosing a provider?
Back Pain Specialists
Nowadays individuals have options for treating back pain. Primary healthcare providers, general practitioners, pediatricians, and emergency room workers are usually the first to examine the injury or problem. If they are unable to properly diagnose or treat the injury, they will refer the individual to a specialist. Specialists include:
They specialize in chronic conditions and diseases like arthritis or problems like herniated discs. Complementary and alternative providers treat individuals solely or with help from a care team. They look at the whole body and focus on improving overall function.
Family and General Practitioners
When neck or back pain begins a regular doctor that’s usually a family or general practitioner/GP or primary care provider PCP is a recommended place to start. They will:
- Order diagnostic tests.
- Recommend exercises and stretches.
- Prescribe medication.
- Refer the patient to a physical therapist or other back pain specialist.
However, studies suggest general providers can be uninformed and slow to adopt new back treatments. (Paul B. Bishop, Peter C. Wing. 2006) It is recommended to research possible treatment options, ask a lot of questions during an appointment, and ask or request a referral to a specialist.
Pediatricians diagnose and treat children. They cover a wide range of issues including back problems and injuries. As with a general practitioner or primary care provider, a child’s pediatrician is the place to start. Depending on the child’s needs, they’ll refer them to the proper specialist.
Emergency Healthcare Providers
When there is serious neck or back trauma, individuals need to go to the emergency room. Trauma can include automobile collisions, sports accidents, work accidents, and/or personal home accidents. Someone with a possible spinal injury should not be moved. (W Yisheng, et al., 2007) Go to the ER if there is back pain with loss of bowel or bladder control, or the legs become progressively weaker. These are symptoms of an emergency condition known as cauda equina syndrome. (American Association of Neurological Surgeons. 2023)
Orthopedists and orthopedic surgeons treat the musculoskeletal system, which includes:
- Connective tissues
Common orthopedic issues include:
- Repetitive stress injuries
- Sports injuries
- Ruptured discs
- Nerve impingement
Orthopedics can overlap with other specialties. As orthopedists and rheumatologists both treat arthritis and orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons do some of the same procedures that include spinal fusions and discectomies.
A rheumatologist treats autoimmune, inflammatory, and musculoskeletal conditions that can include different types of arthritis, lupus, and Sjogren’s syndrome. A primary care provider may refer a patient to a rheumatologist if they have symptoms that include:
- Sacroiliitis – inflammation of the sacroiliac joint at the base of the spine.
- Axial spondylosis – a form of spinal arthritis.
- Axial spondylosis – spinal arthritis that causes the bones to fuse together.
- Rheumatologists can also treat spinal stenosis or advanced osteoarthritis as they overlap with orthopedists.
A neurologist specializes in the function of the nervous system. They treat disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that include:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Chronic back or neck pain
They are experts in the origins of pain. (David Borsook. 2012) However, a neurologist does not perform spine surgery.
A neurosurgeon specializes in nervous system surgical procedures that include the brain, spine, and spinal cord. However, neurosurgeons do not provide overall treatment for back pain because they are usually the last to be seen after exhausting all other treatment options.
An osteopath is a licensed physician who practices medicine using conventional treatments and osteopathic manipulative medicine. They have the same education as an MD plus 500 hours of musculoskeletal system studies. (National Library of Medicine. 2022) They take the same exams and are licensed as an MD. Many osteopaths are primary care providers. For back pain, they will focus on:
- Posture rehabilitation and training.
- Therapeutic massage
- Spinal manipulation
The goal is to relieve pain and muscle tension, increase mobility, and improve musculoskeletal function.
Physiatrists are holistic providers that focus on physical function. They can be thought of as a primary care provider plus a physical therapist. These back pain specialists provide rehabilitation for various types of conditions and injuries including:
- Back pain
- Sports injuries
- Often they will coordinate a team of specialists to develop a targeted treatment plan.
Chiropractic is a hands-on alternative medicine. The goal is to restore neuromusculoskeletal function by realigning the spine to its proper form. They do this with spinal manipulations, non-surgical mechanical decompression, traction, and massage techniques. (Michael Schneider, et al., 2016)
- The purpose of most chiropractic adjustments is to relax and retrain tight muscles and increase flexibility.
- Chiropractic helps to relieve stiff muscles and restore range of motion.
Individuals may not be referred to a chiropractor if they:
- Have loose-joints
- Have connective tissue problems or conditions.
- Have osteoporosis/thinning bones
All types of back pain specialists provide various forms of therapy that may be able to help.
Spinal Decompression in Depth
Bishop, P. B., & Wing, P. C. (2006). Knowledge transfer in family physicians managing patients with acute low back pain: a prospective randomized control trial. The spine journal : official journal of the North American Spine Society, 6(3), 282–288. doi.org/10.1016/j.spinee.2005.10.008
Yisheng, W., Fuying, Z., Limin, W., Junwei, L., Guofu, P., & Weidong, W. (2007). First aid and treatment for cervical spinal cord injury with fracture and dislocation. Indian journal of orthopaedics, 41(4), 300–304. doi.org/10.4103/0019-5413.36991
American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Caudia Equina Syndrome.
Borsook D. (2012). Neurological diseases and pain. Brain : a journal of neurology, 135(Pt 2), 320–344. doi.org/10.1093/brain/awr271
National Library of Medicine. Doctor of osteopathic medicine.
Schneider, M., Murphy, D., & Hartvigsen, J. (2016). Spine Care as a Framework for the Chiropractic Identity. Journal of chiropractic humanities, 23(1), 14–21. doi.org/10.1016/j.echu.2016.09.004
The information herein on "Treating Back Pain: Meet the Specialists" is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional or licensed physician and is not medical advice. We encourage you to make healthcare decisions based on your research and partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
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