Duke’s back doctors use advanced techniques and tools to reduce or eliminate your back pain. Back pain can have many causes. We use a wide range of tests to diagnose your specific condition. Our goal is to find the most-effective, least-invasive treatment option that manages or eliminates your pain and maximizes your ability to function.
About Back Pain
Back pain can occur along any part of the spine and in your back’s muscles, soft tissues, joints, bones, and nerves. Acute back pain often comes on suddenly, lasts less than six weeks, and usually gets better with rest and time. Common causes include pulling a muscle from lifting something heavy, twisting awkwardly, or playing sports. Chronic back pain, on the other hand, lasts more than three months, may not have an easily identifiable single cause, and usually requires a pain specialist’s help to get better.
Duke Health offers locations throughout the Triangle. Find one near you.
Nonsurgical Back Pain Treatments
The severity, source, and type of your back pain will guide your treatment plan, and conservative options are usually the first step. If these solutions don’t provide enough relief, you may be a candidate for spine surgery.
A trained physical therapist guides you in exercises and stretches designed to strengthen your back, improve your balance and flexibility, and improve range of motion -- all benefits that can alleviate your pain and protect your spine from future injury. Physical therapists will teach you stretches and exercises to do on your own to prevent further episodes of spine pain.
Medications include over-the-counter pain relievers, prescription-grade anti-inflammatory drugs, and occasionally short courses of muscle relaxers, nerve-pain medicines, and more. Our back doctors balance medication recommendations with risks of side effects, dependency, or other unwanted reactions.
In some cases, including trauma and fractures or instability of the spine, your doctors may recommend wearing a rigid or semi-rigid back brace for a short time. This stabilizes your spine, allowing it to heal and helping prevent additional injury.
Injections and Ablation
Epidural steroid injections treat inflammation and pain right at the source -- your pinched nerves. Other injections target abnormalities or pain from certain joints. Using precise X-ray imaging to guide them, doctors numb the skin over the injection site and place a needle close to the pain source in your spine. They may inject medication, which usually begins reducing pain within a few days to a week. Or they may use ablation, which applies radiofrequency energy to damage your nerve so that it no longer sends pain signals to your brain. For each of these options, you’ll feel pressure during the injection. You may be able to return to normal activities that day. Some people require more than one injection to start feeling better.
A TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator) unit can be used in your doctor’s office or at home. A portable version is small enough to hold in your hand. When you are experiencing pain, you place reusable electrodes on your back and attach them with wires to the TENS device. Then you turn on the device to deliver mild electricity (it should not hurt) through your skin for 15 to 30 minutes. This stimulates your nerves and stops pain receptors in the brain.
A skilled chiropractor uses spinal manipulation and other manual methods to help relieve neck and back pain and other symptoms such as numbness and tingling, loss of strength, or pain in the arms or legs. These hands-on techniques stretch and move the spine to restore mobility to joints restricted by injury or repetitive stress, such as sitting without proper back support. Our chiropractors can also advise you about exercises for improving strength and flexibility and incorporating safe movements and proper posture into your daily activities.
A range of experts can help you understand the mental and emotional aspects of pain, develop skills and strategies to cope with it, and improve your quality of life.
Massage manipulates muscles to relax them, ease tension, and improve blood flow and circulation.
An acupuncturist on our staff uses fine needles placed strategically in your skin to relieve pain.
By taking pictures of bones and joints in your back. X-rays can help identify fractures, tumors, dislocations, bone spurs, instability, or other potential causes of pain. They showed the alignment of your spine to help detect scoliosis or spondylolisthesis. X-rays take about 15 minutes and are virtually painless.
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
Magnetic waves create detailed pictures of your spine, including your discs and nerves, and soft tissues. Images can help identify disc damage or pinched nerves. This test takes about 30 to 60 minutes and is virtually painless.
CT (Computed Tomography)
A series of cross-sectional pictures produce detailed, 3-D images of your bones. This test takes about 30 to 60 minutes and is virtually painless.
Nerve Conduction Study and Electromyogram (EMG)
Electrodes are inserted directly into muscle with a thin needle. They measure how fast electrical signals move through your nerves, to identify nerve damage and assess muscle function. You will feel some discomfort. These tests can last from 30 to 90 minutes.
Why Choose Duke
Team of Specialists
Our team includes interventional physiatrists (physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors) who specialize in conservative spine care, pain management specialists, orthopedic and neurosurgery experts, physical and occupational therapists, psychologists, a massage therapist, acupuncturists, a chiropractor, and others. We work together to ensure you receive comprehensive, thorough care.
We Listen to You
Our providers take pride in working alongside you to decide on the best course of treatment. We are sensitive to your treatment preferences, will never push you to have surgery, offer non-interventional alternative treatment options, and respect your wishes to avoid certain medications or procedures.
Where you receive your care matters. Duke University Hospital is proud of our team and the exceptional care they provide. They are why our orthopaedics, neurology, and neurosurgery programs are nationally ranked, and are the highest ranked programs in North Carolina, according to U.S. News & World Report for 2020–2021.