Back Pain. Diagnosis


The therapist is part of the team involved in the treatment and rehabilitation of patients suffering low back pain. In some countries manipulative therapists are primary contact practitioners. Consequently, their diagnostic skills have greatly improved, enabling them to define which mechanical conditions can be helped by mechanical therapy and to separate these conditions from the nonmechanical lesions which have no place in the therapy clinic.

However, differential diagnosis is really not within the scope of manipulative therapy. It is my view that differential diagnosing by medical practitioners is necessary to exclude serious and unsuitable pathologies from being referred for mechanical therapy. In making diagnoses the manipulative therapist should confine himself to musculo-skeletal mechanical lesions. Specialised in this field, he is usually able to make far more accurate diagnoses than most medical practitioners. As the manipulative therapy profession gains international respect, we may soon see the day that this specialisation becomes generally accepted.


In the low back mechanical diagnosis is extremely difficult. As yet, no means have been devised which enable us to selectively stress individual structures and identify the source of many pains. As Nachemson states, there is only one condition which allows a fairly confident diagnosis to be made:

“the patient with sciatica caused by sequestration from the disc which impinges on a nerve root. Such patients, though, represent only a small proportion of those who have low back pain problems, and constitute at most only a few percent.”

This means that perhaps as many as ninety percent of patients cannot be diagnosed in a very specific manner. Various authorities have stated that in many instances it is impossible to define the exact pathological basis for low back pain and, consequently, to achieve a precise diagnosis. Nachemson has said:

“No one in the world knows the real cause of back pain and I am no exception.”

When authorities such as these clearly state that the problems surrounding specific diagnosis of low back pain are insurmountable, it seems that the time has come to alter the rules of the game. Instead of aiming for a specific diagnosis based on a particular pathology, we must apply an alternative system of assessment. This can be used until further development of our knowledge and diagnostic procedures enables us to become more specific.

In order to analyse mechanical low back pain and categorise the symptoms a new approach is necessary. I believe we have a means of overcoming the present diagnostic impasse. If mechanical pain is caused by mechanical deformation of soft tissues containing nociceptive receptors, we must confine our diagnosis within this framework.


All spinal pain of mechanical origin can be classified in one of the following syndromes:

The postural syndrome:

This is caused by mechanical deformation of soft tissues as a result of postural stresses. Maintenance of certain postures or positions which place some soft tissues under prolonged stress, will eventually be productive of pain. Thus, the postural syndrome is characterised by intermittent pain brought on by particular postures or positions, and usually some time must pass before the pain becomes apparent. The pain ceases only with a change of position or after postural correction.

The dysfunction syndrome:

This is caused by mechanical deformation of soft tissues affected by adaptive shortening. Adaptive shortening may occur for a variety of reasons which will be discussed later. It leads to a loss of movement in certain directions and causes pain to be produced before normal full range of movement is achieved. Thus, the dysfunction syndrome is characterised by intermittent pain and a partial loss of movement. The pain is brought on as soon as shortened structures are stressed by end positioning or end movement and ceases almost immediately when the stress is released.

The derangement syndrome:

This is caused by mechanical deformation of soft tissues as a result of internal derangement. Alteration of the position of the fluid nucleus within the disc, and possibly the surrounding annulus, causes a disturbance in the normal resting position of the two vertebrae enclosing the disc involved. Various forms and degrees of internal derangement are possible, and each presents a somewhat different set of signs and symptoms. These will be discussed later. Thus, the derangement syndrome is usually characterised by constant pain, but intermittent pain may occur depending on the size and location of the derangement. There is a partial loss of movement, some movements being full range and others partially or completely blocked. This causes the deformities in kyphosis and scoliosis so typical of the syndrome in the acute stage.

The three syndromes presented are totally different from each other, and each syndrome must be treated as an entity on its own, requiring special procedures which are often unsuitable for the other syndromes. In order to identify which syndrome is present in a particular patient a history must be established and an examination must be performed.