Diagnosing and treating back pain

Eight out of 10 Americans will experience some kind of back pain in their lives. It can make it difficult to do the things you love, like gardening, playing with your kids or even walking around your neighborhood. Usually, back pain will get better on its own in a few weeks. But when it doesn’t, treatments like spine-strengthening exercises and hands-on care can help you recover.  

Causes of back pain

One of the biggest myths about back pain is that it’s usually a sign of a serious condition. This isn’t true. The vast majority of back pain we see in our patients is actually caused by minor conditions like:

  • Sprains or strains from overuse
  • Postural strain caused by sitting or standing in certain positions for a prolonged time
  • Poor body mechanics (how your body moves
  • Lack of regular exercise
  • Conditioning problems such as muscle tightness or weakness

Another common myth about back pain is that we need to know the cause in order to treat it. This isn’t true. Back pain experts are able to treat the symptoms and help you recover from your back pain without determining the precise cause of your pain. 

Treating back pain at home

Most back pain doesn’t require medical treatment and will heal on its own in about two to six weeks. To help your back heal and relieve pain, try the following tips:

Recent studies have shown that bed rest can worsen symptoms and make recovery longer. Moderate activity is actually one of the best ways to treat back pain on your own. Remember that just because it hurts doesn’t mean that it’s harmful. Do your best to stick to your normal routine. 

Exercise is the key to recovery. Strengthening and stretching your muscles can help relieve pressure and improve spinal support. Exercises that strengthen your back, core and legs will help your recovery and may prevent future injuries. The best exercises are the ones you enjoy doing. This might include yoga, tai chi, Pilates, strength training or walking. 

Common over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin can help manage pain. These medicines can help you feel more comfortable while you go about your day.

Some people find relief with heat and ice. Heat can help relax stiff muscles and joints while ice can numb pain and may reduce inflammation. Try applying a hot or cold compress to painful areas for 15 minutes a few times a day. Electric heating pads or reusable gel packs are also great tools for applying heat or ice. 

Stress makes us tense. This tension can actually make back pain worse. Taking steps to lower your stress level may reduce inflammation and help relieve pain. When you’re stressed, try relaxing with deep breathing. Close your eyes and take slow, deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Repeat five times.

Learn more about how to manage stress.

Diagnosing back pain

If your back isn’t starting to feel better after two weeks of home treatment, it’s probably time to make an appointment with a back pain specialist. At HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, your first visit starts with an initial assessment. During the initial assessment, we’ll ask you about your symptoms and test your range of motion, mobility and muscle strength. Imaging tests (CT scans and MRIs) are rarely needed. After your assessment is finished, we’ll guide you toward the best type of treatment for your condition.

If you need expert treatment for back pain, our primary care doctors recommend starting with a physical therapist or chiropractor. Your physical therapist or chiropractor will assess your symptoms and start you on a personalized treatment plan. Here’s what you can expect from each type of care.

Our physical therapists coach you through exercises tailored to your unique needs. This may include exercises that strengthen your neck, back and core muscles and stretches to improve your flexibility and mobility. Physical therapists commonly use hands-on care to support your recovery. They also teach you how to do exercises on your own and provide a home exercise plan so you can continue to improve between sessions. During your sessions, we’ll teach you about your back pain, how to avoid re-injury, and how to get back to your normal activities.

It usually takes about six visits to complete your treatment plan, but many people start feeling relief from their first visit. We also offer pool therapy, sports rehabilitation programs and onsite yoga classes to support your treatment.

Who should see a physical therapist?

If back pain makes it difficult for you to do daily activities or affects your ability to work, physical therapy is a good fit. By strengthening your muscles, physical therapy not only relieves back pain but it can prevent future pain.      

Do I need a referral?

No, you can make an appointment with a physical therapist without a referral. But some health insurance providers do require a referral in order to cover physical therapy. If you’re not sure what your insurance covers, please check with your insurance plan to see if they require a physician referral.

Our Physicians Neck & Back Center is a specialty center created to treat recurring and chronic back pain. Your visit to PNBC starts with an initial assessment to help us understand your symptoms, medical history and treatment goals. Then, one of our physical therapists will create a unique treatment plan for you. This treatment plan may include therapist-guided strengthening exercises using specialized medical equipment that targets specific muscles in your back, neck and core. During your treatment, you’ll typically visit PNBC twice a week.

We’ll also teach you about your back pain, how to avoid re-injury and how to perform daily activities. After you complete treatment, you’ll have the option to join the PNBC CORE program which gives you access to the specialized equipment so you can continue to improve. 

Who should visit PNBC?

Our physical therapists at PNBC focus on helping people with recurrent, complex or chronic back pain. We help people improve their function, reduce pain and prevent further injury so they can feel comfortable and confident doing the things they love. PNBC is a good fit for you if you’ve had back pain symptoms for more than six weeks, have experienced back pain before, or have back pain that causes symptoms in your arms, hands, legs or feet.  

Do I need a referral to visit PNBC?

You can make an appointment at PNBC without a referral. But some health insurance providers will require a referral in order to cover physical therapy. If you’re not sure what your insurance covers, call the number on the back of your card for more information.

Chiropractors treat back pain by adjusting your body, with a focus on the spine. They use their hands or specialized instruments to apply controlled force to your joints to help correct dysfunction. They also stimulate your body’s natural healing abilities with manual therapy, a treatment that includes kneading your muscles and joint manipulation. Chiropractors will also teach you about your back pain and recommend a home exercise program.

Who should see a chiropractor?

Chiropractic care is a good fit for someone who needs short-term relief from pain or mobility issues caused by muscle tightness. Chiropractors can loosen stiff muscles and increase your spine’s flexibility through adjustments to your joints and vertebrae. If you have pain below your knee, you should seek a different type of treatment, like physical therapy. 

How can I find a chiropractor?

HealthPartners members

If HealthPartners is your insurance provider, call the number on the back of your card. Our member services team will help you find a chiropractor in our care network.

Other insurance holders

If you have another insurance provider, call the number on the back of your card. Your provider will be able to help you find a chiropractor in your network. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Usually, back pain isn’t a sign of a more serious concern. However, if you have back pain along with any of the following symptoms that have started recently, call your doctor right away.

  • Back pain continues to get worse over time
  • Inability to bear weight or walk in the usual way
  • Leg weakness that gets worse
  • New changes in controlling your bowel or bladder
  • Numbness and tingling in your legs
  • Pain in both legs
  • Pain that isn’t relieved by lying down or keeps you up all night
  • Recent high impact injury (from a fall, collision, accident or sports trauma)
  • Recent unexplained fever of more than 100.4 degrees
  • Recent unexplained weight loss
  • Saddle anesthesia (loss of sensation in the backside and inner thighs) 
  • History of cancer

Yes. Feeling pain doesn’t mean that the exercise is harmful. In fact, physical activity is one of the best ways to relieve back pain. 

We often hear from patients that they’re worried they’ll need surgery to heal their back. At HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, we’ve learned that surgery is rarely the best treatment option. Instead, we focus on non-surgical treatment options like exercise and hands-on care.

While prescription pain medications can help relieve pain today, they come with side effects that are often worse than the pain itself. The long-term use of opioids can actually make you more sensitive to pain, making pain worse over time. We focus on treating back pain without surgery or medication. 

Probably not. We can almost always treat back pain without using imaging tests like CT scans and MRIs. In rare cases, we’ll let you know if we recommend an imaging test. 

If you still have questions about your back pain, give us a call. Our CareLine℠ is a free phone service where you can talk to registered nurses. Our nurses can help answer your questions about symptoms and discuss treatment options. They’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

You can reach us at 612-339-3663 or 800-551-0859.

We accept most health insurance plans, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, CIGNA, HealthPartners, Medica, Medicare, PreferredOne and many others.

Not sure what your insurance covers? Call the number on the back of your card for help looking at your options.

Don’t have your card in front of you? Here are member services numbers to help you get started: