Many types of medical professionals treat back pain, and each has different training, skills, and specialties. So how do you know which specialist is best for helping to alleviate your back pain? Here’s an overview of different back pain specialists and which type or team may be right for you.
Learn about the different back pain specialists
When a back problem occurs, it's typically a good idea to first consult with a primary care physician. This doctor will conduct an initial exam and, depending on the findings, he or she may refer you to a spine specialist.
If you are referred to a specialist for chronic back pain, it will likely be to one of the following:
Also called a physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM and R) physician, physiatrists specialize in nonsurgical treatment of back pain. Some physiatrists perform electrodiagnostic testing for a more accurate diagnosis of the root cause of back pain before implementing a comprehensive treatment plan. While some physiatrists specialize in either interventional pain management or physical rehabilitation, others combine both in their practice.
Therapists specializing in physical therapy (PT) can help treat people with back conditions. Physical rehabilitation is part of most back pain treatment plans.
See How a Physical Therapist Can Help with Exercise
Other specialists who may also provide physical therapy as a core part of their practice include orthopedic surgeons, neurosurgeons, and physiatrists.
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.
A rheumatologist is an internal medicine doctor who is trained in the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases affecting your musculoskeletal system. A rheumatologist is likely to serve as your primary back care specialist if your pain is related to certain types of arthritis, such as ankylosing spondylitis.
Spine surgeons are typically trained and board certified in either orthopedic surgery or neurosurgery. While most types of back pain can be successfully managed without surgery, in rare cases surgery may be recommended as the only way to prevent neurological deficits from worsening and/or to address the cause of your pain.
See Orthopedic Surgeon vs. Neurosurgeon for Spine Surgery
Before agreeing to spine surgery, it is always important to understand the potential risks, benefits, and alternative treatment options, in addition to having all of your questions answered to your satisfaction.
See 40 Questions to Ask Your Surgeon Before Back Surgery
Integrated spine clinics bring together multiple skill sets
To better handle the challenges involved with diagnosing and treating complicated back conditions, health care professionals 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 the specialists work in the same clinic, each specialist maintains their own clinic—but they work together by referring patients to one another as needed.
Be proactive about your back pain treatment plan
If the current treatment plan for your back pain isn't working, consider researching various spine specialists on your own. There may be a different type of health professional who is better suited to treat your condition.
Before you see a specialist, write down a clear description of your symptoms and the treatments you've tried. This written record can help you to better communicate 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.
Preparing to See A Doctor for Back and Neck Pain