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.

ASSESSMENT OF PAIN Pain gives the body warning and often is accompanied by anxiety and the need to relieve the pain. Pain is both sensation and emotion. As noted earlier, it can be acute or chronic. Health-care professionals may find the following mnemonic tool useful for assessing a client in pain: P = place (client points with one finger to the location of the pain) A = amount (client rates pain on a scale from 0 to 10 ) I = interactions (client describes what worsens the pain) N = neutralizers (client describes what lessens the pain) The scale of 0 to 10, as described in the mnemonic, is a useful method of assessing pain. Further pain assessment skills include observing the client’s appearance and activity. Monitoring the client’s vital signs may be of value in assessing acute pain but not necessarily chronic pain. To assess the pain of children or those with some cognitive dysfunction or dementia, a “smiley face” model often proves beneficial. The first smiley face shows a happy face...
Spine Health. PROCEDURE 14 — FLEXION IN STANDING The simple toe touching exercise in standing does not need much elaboration. The patient, standing with the feet about thirty centimeters apart, bends forward sliding the hands down the front of the legs in order to have some support and to measure the degree of flexion achieved. On reaching the maximum flexion allowed by pain or range, the patient returns to the upright position. The sequence is repeated about ten times, should be performed rhythmically, and initially with caution and without vigour. It is important to ensure that in between each movement the patient returns to neutral standing. Fig. Flexion in standing. Effects: Flexion in standing differs from flexion in lying in various ways. Naturally, the gravitational and compressive forces act differently in both situations. In flexion in standing the movement takes place from above downwards, and the lower lumbar and lumbo-sacral joints are placed on full stretch only at the end of the movement. In addition, the lumbo...
Spine Health. PROCEDURE 6 — EXTENSION IN STANDING The patient stands with the feet well apart and places the hands (fingers pointing backwards) in the small of the back across the belt line. He leans backwards as far as possible, using the hands as a fulcrum, and then returns to neutral standing. The exercise is repeated about ten times. As with extension in lying it is necessary to move to the very maximum to obtain the desired result. Fig. Extension in standing. Effects: Extension in standing produces similar effects on derangement and dysfunction as extension in lying, but it is less effective in the earlier treatment stages of both syndromes. Whenever extension in lying is prevented by circumstances, an extension stress can be given by extension in standing. In derangement, extension in standing is designed to reduce accumulation of nuclear material in the posterior compartment of the intervertebral joint, provided this accumulation is not gross. In the latter case extension in lying will have to be performed first. Th...
Back Pain History Taking an accurate history is the most important part of the initial consultation when one is dealing with any medical or surgical problem. Unfortunately, when the mechanical lesion is involved there is still lack of understanding regarding the nature of the questions that should be asked, the reasons for asking them, and the conclusions to be drawn from the answers. I will set out step by step the stages that should be developed in history taking, and the questions that should be asked at each stage. Practitioners will already have their own method of history taking, and I do not suggest at all that they should alter their routine. However, I believe that the following questions must be included, if one is to reach a conclusion following the examination of patients with mechanical low back pain. INTERROGATION As well as the usual questions regarding name, age and address, one should enquire as to the occupation of the patient, in particular his position at work which provides us ...
Spinal manipulation techniques There are many differing philosophies and concepts surrounding the practise of spinal manipulation and its effects on the pathologies which may exist in the spine. To satisfy all these philosophies an equal number of institutions has developed, teaching those wishing to learn. No matter what school presents its case or which philosophy is adhered to, all manipulative specialists claim to have a high success rate. They all use techniques which vary in nature, application and intent; they proclaim that their own methods are superior to those used by others; and yet, somehow they all obtain uniformly good results. Self-limitation of low back pain plays, of course, a significant role in this happy situation. Apart from this there are definite benefits which are obtained quickly by using manipulative techniques. Throughout the years I have practised many forms of mobilisation and manipulation, including osteopathic and chiropractic techniques and those taught by Cyriax. I have come to be...