Learning how to narrow down the cause of your back pain will help you receive better treatment, both from yourself and from medical professionals. Since there are a number of back pain causes, finding yours will likely require some research into anatomy and medical conditions.
In today’s culture of specialization, we tend to defer the responsibility of diagnosis and the decision-making about treatment to professionals. While this makes sense on a cerebral level, it has left many chronic pain sufferers without answers. There are many excellent doctors who are in the business for the right reasons; that said, you can sadly expect anyone with chronic pain to have at least one story about a dismissive, negligent doctor whose prescription began and ended with pain medications.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to surgery, drugs and “just dealing” with chronic pain. You just have to know where to look. Part of educating yourself is gathering resources that will help you identify your pain and possible treatments. The first step is identifying what type of pain you have.
Signs of Nerve Impingement
Many people with back pain, especially lower back pain, complain of traveling pain. Impingement in the lower back, often of the sciatic nerve, can cause pain in the hips, buttocks and legs all the way down to the feet. Foot pain is not intuitively associated with pain in the back, but a little education into nerve pathways reveals that the two are likely related.
The Dermatome Map
An excellent resource for solidifying the link between back pain and pain in other parts of the body is the dermatome map. This will provide a visual representation of where specific spinal nerves travel throughout the body. Here is a good copy of a dermatome map.
Reading the map requires some basic education about the spine. The upper segment of the spine in the neck is referred to as the cervical spine, consisting of 8 vertebrae. The top vertebra is named C1; the next one down is C2, and so on to C8. The next segment of the spine connects to the ribs and is called the thoracic spine. Its vertebrae are named T1 through T12, with T1 as the topmost and T12 as the bottommost vertebra. Below this segment is the lumbar spine in the lower back, consisting of 5 vertebrae named like the other segments. Below the lumbar spine is the sacrum, a segment of fused vertebrae at the base of the spine.
The dermatome map provides an approximate but neat representation of the body’s nerve pathways. A person with pain in the lower back and heel pain could use this map to infer possible nerve impingement in the lumbar spine at L5. Likewise, numbness and tingling in the top of the hand could indicate a nerve problem stemming from the bottom vertebrae of the cervical spine. Using this tool to guide you and your doctor through diagnosis will speed up the process and increase your chances of receiving effective treatment.
Treating Causes of Pain, Not Just Pain
Seek out a doctor who will listen to your needs and desires. Pain medication may be required temporarily to allow you to function, but treating the cause of impingement will require further action. You may need physical therapy, chiropractic care or spinal decompression treatments. It is important that your doctors knows you understand that there are a variety of safe treatment options that can prevent prolonged pain medication use and surgery.
Spinal problems that cause nerve impingement should be treated as serious medical conditions. You can take steps to diagnose and resolve your pain, but don’t substitute self-care for medical treatment when the latter is needed. Establish yourself as a partner in your treatment and avoid getting the runaround from a doctor who won’t take you seriously.