Like many people, you may be confused as to which type of doctor to see for your back pain. Every person is different, and so the answer depends on your specific situation and personal preferences. Many types of specialists treat back pain, and each has different training, skills, and interests.
In the case of many health conditions, one type of medical specialist will typically coordinate your care. However, in the case of back pain there is no one type of specialist who generally coordinates care. This is especially true for any type of chronic or ongoing back problem, and you may find that you need to see more than one type of specialist to diagnose and treat your condition.
Find the right specialist
When a back problem first occurs, it's typically a good idea to first consult with a primary care physician, osteopathic physician, or chiropractor. That doctor will conduct an initial exam, and, depending on the situation, he or she may refer you to a spine specialist.
There are no hard and fast rules for when to get a referral for your back pain, but there are some general guidelines. For example, if you don't find relief after 4 to 8 weeks of chiropractic care it's typically best to consult with a specialist.
If you are referred to a specialist, it will likely be to one of the following:
Spine surgeons typically have training and board certification in either orthopedic surgery or neurosurgery. No one wants to have spine surgery, but it may be the quickest and most reliable way to address the cause of your pain.
Also called a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM and R) doctor, physiatrists specialize in treating musculoskeletal disorders through nonsurgical treatments. Some physiatrists specialize in either pain management or physical rehabilitation, while others combine both in their practice.
Anesthesiologist (Pain Management)
Most people think of an anesthesiologist as the person who administers and monitors anesthesia during surgery. However, many anesthesiologists actually specialize in pain management, and some focus on treating spinal disorders.
Physical or Occupational Therapist
Therapists specialize in either physical (PT) or occupational (OT) rehabilitation for people with back conditions, and rehabilitation is part of most back pain treatment plans. Other specialists may also provide physical therapy as a core part of their practice, such as chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, and/or physiatrists.
A rheumatologist is an internal medicine doctor who is trained in the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases affecting your musculoskeletal system. If your back pain is caused by any type of arthritis, such as ankylosing spondylitis, a rheumatologist will typically serve as your primary back-care specialist.
While your primary care doctor is a great resource in regards to directing you towards the right kind of specialist, we encourage you to be proactive and research the options available in your area.
Integrated spine clinics bring together multiple skill sets
To better handle the challenges involved with diagnosing and treating complicated back conditions, health care experts from different specialties sometimes combine their skills by working together in one clinic—called a multi-disciplinary or integrated spine care clinic.
By having access to a variety of specialists, a patient may benefit from a coordinated treatment plan and the expertise of several types of health care specialists.
In some communities, the concept of a multi-disciplinary clinic is approached in a different way. Instead of having all of the specialists under one clinic, each specialist maintains their own clinic—but they work together by referring patients to one another as needed.
What does this mean for you?
If your current treatment plan for your back pain isn't working, consider researching other types of spine specialists. There may be a different type of health professional who is better suited to treat your condition.
See Find a Back Doctor or Spine Surgeon for a listing of Spine-health verified medical professionals
Before you see a specialist, write down a clear, succinct description of your symptoms and the treatments you've tried, as this can help you communicate more clearly with your new doctor. Also, don't be shy about seeking a second (or third) opinion if you think it will help alleviate your back pain.