A new study unveiled in January 2016 by the Arthritis Research & Therapy Journal has found a fast, effective way to identify the root cause of lower back pain with a simple blood test. This study undertaken by the USA’s Feinstein Institute looked at 23 people with back pain plus 10 control subjects relying on incredible knowledge of how the body’s biochemistry changes in response to different diseases by measuring the presence of cytokines.

Cytokines are proteins that come from the immune system in response to inflammation. Specific forms of cytokines are produced by the body to target different inflammatory conditions. Science has figured out how to identify a problem in the body by reading the identity and amount cytokines in the bloodstream. For example, presence of the cytokine known as IL-6 suggests inflammation, but if it occurs in high levels then it points to intervertebral disc herniation. The accuracy and efficiency of the test is a leap forward in personalized diagnosis that can lead to better outcomes for patients.

At the moment, when pain flares up in the lower back a trip to the doctor doesn’t always lead to a diagnosis straightaway. The truth is, the structure of the back is complicated and doctors have to figure out what exactly is going wrong: is it tissue damage, disc degeneration, sciatia, spondylitis or stenosis. The list of potential diagnoses goes on.


Detecting the type of back pain starts with a series of questions. The doctor will ask about the type of pain: is it dull or sharp, an ache or a burn. Sometimes the pain is referred down nerve channels, so that pain felt in the leg or groin area might actually be traced back to the spine. The onset of symptoms matters as well. People that do a lot of manual handling in their jobs, like nurses or carpenters might have been involved in an incident, or the pain may have crept up slowly after years of poor posture and lifting techniques. As you can see, there are many possibilities that need to be considered and excluded based on the information presented.

Doctors turn to diagnostic imaging to confirm what is happening inside the body. Where an x-ray identifies bones, fractures and dense mass an MRI exam is a visual dissection of all matter at different layers. It reveals the whole anatomy in thin slices providing a non invasive examination in fascinating detail.

In a perfect world a correct diagnosis would be reached quickly. It would enable the doctor to prescribe effective treatments helping patients return to their usual activities, sometimes with modifications, to allow healing or pain management. With new tests such as cytokine readings being developed every year, diagnosing the cause of back pain is sure to get quicker and easier in the future.