Quad Cities, IL/IA

Working with the community... for a healthier community.

Understanding Lower Back Pain: Diagnosis and Treatment Options


Back pain — whether sharp and acute, or dull and throbbing — is a big pain. Back aches are one of the most common ailments in the United States. Roughly eight out of ten Americans experience some type of back discomfort during their lifetime.

But while back pain — especially in the lower back — is very common, the causes for the pain and the resulting treatment options are not always straightforward. That’s because lower back pain is different for everyone. For example, one individual can have a herniated disc and experience very little pain, but another person can have a simple muscle strain that limits their ability to walk or even stand.

“Lower back pain is most commonly a result of inactivity, and an imbalance between physical demand on the lower back, and the muscles being able to protect the spine from the rigors of everyday activities,” says Dr. Michael Dolphin, a fellowship-trained spine surgeon in Davenport. “Complicating the matter is the fact that many times, the origins of lower back pain overlap — meaning, many factors play a role.”

Diagnosis Starts With an Exam and Patient History

As a result of the varying, and often overlapping, causes of lower back pain, proper diagnosis is the first step to recovery. That is why Dr. Dolphin always starts with a thorough exam and patient history.

“Questioning the patient regarding their complaints gives me clues as to where to direct my physical examination,” he said. “During the physical examination, we are checking to see if there are any restrictions to motion involving the lower back. We are also evaluating the patient for any signs of weakness, numbness, tingling, or if there are any maneuvers that cause nerve pain.”

The final part of the diagnostic process often involves imaging studies. These can include simple x-rays, or something as complex as an MRI. This helps determine if there is a more significant structural reason for the patient’s complaints.

Non-Surgical Treatment Options
According to Dr. Dolphin, most occurrences of lower back pain can be managed with non-surgical options — including proper rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, and chiropractic care. Dr. Dolphin also emphasizes the importance of exercise.

“I believe the most important alternative to surgery in helping control low back pain is exercise,” said Dr. Dolphin. “Something as simple as walking two miles in 40 minutes, three to four times a week, can help alleviate 75 percent of the back pain experienced by most patients.”

Other approaches to alleviating lower back pain include weight loss, acupuncture, anti-inflammatories, and careful use of epidural steroid injections.

Minimally Invasive Surgery
A majority of the patients Dr. Dolphin sees are not surgical candidates. However, when surgery is the best option, Dr. Dolphin focuses on minimally invasive procedures that shorten recovery time, and diminish post-operative pain.

Minimally invasive spine surgery uses technology that helps the surgeon locate the exact area upon which to operate. And, minimally invasive incisions are less than an inch long; thus, damage to surrounding muscles and other tissues is very small. This speeds up the healing and recovery process. It also lessens the risk of infection.

“Overall, minimally invasive spine surgery is a less daunting experience — physically, psychologically, and cosmetically,” said Dr. Dolphin. “Most people are at home resting within 23 hours or less after surgery, and many of the procedures I perform can even be done in an outpatient surgery center.”

To learn more about the procedures that Dr. Dolphin, a board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopaedic physician with years of experience, performs, or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Dolphin, call 563.344.9292, or visit OSQuadCities.com. Like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/osquadcities to stay up-to-date with treatment options and information.

Photo credits: Thomas_EyeDesign/Yuri_Arcurs/iStock