Causes and Diagnoses

Causes and Diagnoses of Back Pain

Even with today's technology, the exact cause of back pain is often not found. In most cases, back pain may be a symptom of many different causes, including any of the following:

  • Overuse, strenuous activity or improper use, such as repetitive or heavy lifting
  • Trauma, injury or fractures
  • Degeneration of vertebrae, caused by either stress on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine or by the effects of aging
  • Infection
  • Abnormal growth, such as a tumor or bone spur
  • Obesity, causing increased weight on the spine and pressure on the discs
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Muscle tension or spasm
  • Sprain or strain
  • Ligament or muscle tears
  • Joint problems, such as arthritis
  • Smoking
  • Protruding or herniated (slipped) disk and pinched nerve
  • Osteoporosis and compression fractures
  • Congenital (present at birth) abnormalities of the vertebrae and bones
  • Abdominal problems, such as an aortic aneurysm


Your physician will use a variety of tests to help diagnose your back pain, including:

  • X-ray: Identifies any trauma, fractures or degeneration of the spine
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: Uses X-ray and computers to give a more detailed view of the spine
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Allows the physician to see bone as well as soft tissue
  • Myelogram: An X-ray of the spinal canal itself, using a contrast solution to show pressure areas
  • Electromyogram and nerve conduction studies (EMG/NCS): Measures electrical impulses to determine the extent of nerve damage
  • Bone density test: Determines if you have osteoporosis
  • Blood test: Can identify arthritis, in some cases