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Because different types of back pain are treated in different ways, your doctor will want to know when your pain started, how severe it is and how it affects your daily life.


Your doctor will need to know how and when your pain first started, so think about this before your first appointment:

  • Can you remember exactly when you first noticed your pain, or did it creep up on you, getting worse gradually over time?
  • Do you remember any specific problem or event that may have started your pain? If so, when was it?
  • Do some activities trigger your pain – for example, exercise?
  • Has your pain improved over time, or is it getting worse?


Pain is hard to describe because it happens in so many different ways. From a burn, to a pinch, to a strain – pinpointing your back pain isn’t that easy. But it’s important that you describe your pain as best as you can, so don’t pretend that your pain is better or worse than it actually is. Do your best to be clear and accurate with your descriptions.
Before you go to your doctor, think about how you might answer the following questions:

  • Can you identify a specific area of your back where you experience your pain?
  • Does your pain move or spread out from one part of your body, or do you feel the pain everywhere?
  • Does the intensity of the pain get better or worse with certain activities?
  • Does the pattern of your pain always stay the same or do you feel pain in different parts of your body?
  • How would you describe the sensation of the pain? The kind of words that people use to describe pain include sharp, dull, aching, throbbing, stabbing, shooting or tingling – which of these best match the pain you experience?


Living with back pain can also cause problems with day-to-day life. It’s important that your doctor understands how your pain is affecting you, your ability to work or carry out daily tasks, and also how it affects your family life. They may ask you the following questions:

  • Are there any everyday activities that your pain stops you from doing?
  • What effect does gentle exercise, or going to the gym, have on your pain?
  • Does your pain make it difficult to get to sleep at night, or do you wake up because of it?
  • Is the pain relieved on sitting or lying down?
  • Has your pain affected your appetite?
  • What things make the pain better or worse?


Your doctor will ask to examine your back and its surrounding areas to find out what’s causing the most pain. They may also order tests, such as imaging tests and/or blood tests.


Past health problems may be important, so expect your doctor to ask you about your medical history. Just try to answer as best as you can, as this can help your doctor diagnose your condition.

During your consultation, your doctor may ask you if you:   

  • Have had any recent and unexplained weight loss
  • Have had any recent infections
  • Have a family history of any conditions
  • Are taking any medications at the moment


Your doctor is also able to refer you to a wide range of other medical specialists. Each of these is an expert in a specific area and can work with you to diagnose and better manage your condition over time.

The table below explains who these different specialists are, and what they do. If you have any other questions, then be sure to ask your doctor.

Medical specialist Role in treating back pain
General Practitioner (GP) Your GP is your first point of call when you have back pain. They will assess you after you report your first symptoms and, if necessary, will refer you to a specialist for further assessment, diagnostic tests or treatment.
Physiotherapist You may be referred to a physiotherapist, a trained healthcare professional, who is an expert in the movement and functioning of the body. They will assess your back pain and may proceed with manual therapy or therapeutic exercises.
Rheumatologist If your back pain is considered to be inflammatory in nature, your GP may refer you to this medically trained specialist, who is an expert in both autoimmune conditions – a common cause of inflammatory back pain – and a wide range of other disorders that affect the joints, bones and muscles. They may organise diagnostic tests and may start you on a treatment, depending on the cause of your back pain.
Spinal surgeon Surgery can be a way to manage back pain when other treatments have not worked. Depending on your condition, you may be referred to a spinal surgeon who will evaluate if surgery is an appropriate way to manage your back pain. Spine surgeons may be orthopaedic or neurosurgeons.
Rheumatology nurse These nurses are trained to carry out activities alongside rheumatologists – e.g. examining joints, administering treatment and changing your management programme. They are also able to help with your emotional and social needs.
Radiologist Your GP or rheumatologist may refer you to a radiologist – a medically trained specialist – for further imaging (X-rays or scans) of your back. This will help them to identify the cause of your back pain.

There are different types of back pain and it's important to find out which type of pain you have as early as possible, so it can be managed appropriately. If you have had back pain for more than 3 months, you should complete our short Symptom Checker to help you and your doctor understand if your back pain is more likely to be inflammatory.