Diagnosis of Low Back Pain and Sciatica
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Diagnosis of Low Back Pain and Sciatica

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Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. In particular, he or she will examine your back, hips, and legs and will test for strength, flexibility, sensation, and reflexes.

Tests may include:

X-ray – This test uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially bones. Back x-rays may show signs of arthritis , degenerative disk disease , osteoporosis , or a tumor.

CT Scan This type of x-ray uses a computer to generate images of structures inside the body. CT scans may show disc herniations as well as tumors and other lesions.

MRI Scan This test uses strong magnetic waves to take pictures of structures inside the body. An MRI can show if a disc has herniated, and if there are signs of scar tissue around a nerve root. The test can detect other abnormalities, such as bony spurs pressing on a nerve root, and it also is used to check for tumors.

Blood Tests – Blood tests may include a complete blood count and sedimentation rate. Blood tests may be ordered to check for signs of infection, metabolic disease, or inflammation.

Urine Test – These tests check for urinary infection or blood in the urine.

Nerve Conduction Study – In this test, an electrical current is passed through a nerve to determine the health or disease of that nerve.

Electromyography This test measures the electrical activity of muscle by placing needle electrodes into the muscle. By doing this the doctor can determine if the nerve going to that muscle is functioning normally or if there may be pressure on it.

Myelography – In this test, a special dye is injected into the spinal canal. X-rays are then taken to see how the dye lines the space in the spinal canal and see if there are disc herniations or other lesions. This test may be ordered before performing back surgery.

Biopsy – If the cause of your back pain, based on the imaging studies, appears to be the result of a tumor, your physician my take a piece of the tumor (a biopsy) to determine what kind it is and how best to treat it.


Conn's Current Therapy 2001 . 53rd edition. W.B. Saunders Company; 2001.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/ .

Textbook of Primary Care Medicine . 3rd edition. Mosby, Inc.; 2001.

Last reviewed February 2007 by Barbara Harty-Golder, MD, JD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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