Classifying Your Back Pain

Back pain is a prevalent issue, affecting millions of individuals globally. To effectively manage and treat back pain, it is essential to accurately classify the underlying cause. This article discusses the classification of low back pain (LBP), based on the diagnostic triage approach proposed by Bardin, King, and Maher (2017). The article also emphasizes the importance of a focused history and clinical examination for successful LBP management.

The Diagnostic Triage Approach

Specific spinal pathologies account for a small percentage of LBP cases but can have serious consequences if left untreated. These conditions typically necessitate urgent medical attention and possibly surgical intervention. A few examples of specific spinal pathologies include:

  • Fractures: Spinal fractures can result from traumatic injuries, such as falls or car accidents, or from underlying conditions like osteoporosis, which weakens the bones. Symptoms may include localized pain, deformity, and neurological deficits. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, which may involve immobilization, pain management, or surgery, are essential to prevent long-term complications.
  • Malignancy: Spinal tumours may be primary (originating within the spine) or secondary (metastatic, spreading from another site in the body). These tumours can cause progressive pain that worsens at night and is unresponsive to conservative measures. Other signs may include unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and a personal history of cancer. Treatment options may range from radiation therapy and chemotherapy to surgical resection, depending on the tumour type and location.
  • Infection: Spinal infections, such as vertebral osteomyelitis, discitis, or epidural abscess, can lead to severe pain, fever, and neurological deficits. Risk factors include recent invasive spinal procedures, intravenous drug use, and a compromised immune system. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics, drainage of abscesses, and, in some cases, surgery, is crucial to prevent permanent damage to the spinal structures.

Specific Spinal Pathology

Specific spinal pathologies are rare but serious causes of LBP. These conditions often require immediate medical intervention to prevent severe complications. Specific spinal pathologies include:

  • Fractures: Spinal fractures may occur due to trauma, osteoporosis, or other underlying conditions. Early detection and appropriate treatment are crucial to prevent long-term disability.
  • Malignancy: Spinal tumours may originate from the spine or metastasize from other parts of the body. Symptoms may include progressive pain, unexplained weight loss, and a history of cancer.
  • Infection: Spinal infections can involve the vertebrae, intervertebral discs, or spinal canal. Risk factors include recent surgery, intravenous drug use, and a compromised immune system.

Radicular Symptoms

Radicular symptoms arise from the compression or irritation of spinal nerve roots. The most common presentation of radicular symptoms is sciatica, characterized by pain radiating down the leg along the distribution of the sciatic nerve. Radicular symptoms may also include numbness, tingling, or weakness in the affected limb. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help alleviate the symptoms and prevent permanent nerve damage.

Non-Specific Low Back Pain

Non-specific LBP is the most common category of back pain, accounting for up to 90% of cases. The exact cause of non-specific LBP is often unclear, but it can be attributed to various factors such as muscle strain, ligament sprain, or degenerative changes in the spine. Non-specific LBP is typically managed conservatively with a combination of physical therapy, pain medications, and lifestyle modifications.

Focused History and Clinical Examination

A focused history and clinical examination are essential for accurately classifying LBP and guiding the appropriate management plan. The history should include information about the onset, duration, and characteristics of the pain, as well as any associated symptoms or aggravating factors. The clinical examination should assess the patient’s posture, range of motion, neurological function, and the presence of any red flags that may indicate a specific spinal pathology.


In conclusion, accurately classifying back pain is crucial for effective diagnosis and management. The diagnostic triage approach, as proposed by Bardin, King, and Maher (2017), provides a practical framework for primary care providers to categorize LBP into specific spinal pathology, radicular symptoms, and non-specific LBP. A focused history and clinical examination remain key components in the successful management of back pain. By understanding the different categories of LBP and their appropriate treatment strategies, healthcare providers can help patients achieve better outcomes and improved quality of life.