The human spine is not exactly delicate, but it is critical for motor function and general quality of life. Because the spine is composed of nerves, bone tissue, cartilage, and is directly attached to many muscle groups, spinal problems often fall within the forte of more than one medical specialist.
There are quite a few different doctors you have the option of seeing whenever you’re experiencing spinal pain or discomfort. If your problem is diagnosed to be something your doctor isn’t experienced with, it’s normal to be referred to a completely different specialist – while back doctors are back doctors, different specialists address very different aspects of back pain and spinal medicine. Here is a short and concise list of the different spine specialists you may run into regarding your back.
The most urgent care requires doctors trained in performing the most urgent treatments.
If you find yourself in a situation where you’re experiencing sudden and extreme pain, or have just survived a serious form of trauma to the neck and/or back, or are struggling with a severe onset of symptoms from a progressive spine disorder, the emergency room is the place to be.
Forget trying to schedule an appointment – severe pain in the spine is a very bad thing and can quickly lead to very dire long-term consequences. Getting immediate help is critical.
Pediatricians might not personally be spine specialists, but it’s likely that they can specifically refer you to a specialist who can help your child with their condition.
If you’re not sure what kind of back or neck pain your child is dealing with, go to a pediatrician and work with them to help get an accurate diagnosis.
For Ruptured Discs and Scoliosis
Orthopedic doctors are medical doctors who specialize working with bones, muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons – collectively known as the musculoskeletal system. They’re the doctors who are called in to perform surgeries on blown-out knees, help heal tendon injuries, correctly identify and diagnose common problems such as severe sprains and bone spurs – and yes, they work on the spine.
Specifically, orthopedic doctors specialize in treating ruptured or herniated discs (wherein the discs between the vertebrae of the spine are swollen), as well as issues caused by spinal deformities such as scoliosis, kyphosis, and other deformities/curvature problems.
Aside from prescribing non-invasive treatment, orthopedic surgeons also perform invasive treatments to help correct certain problems or alleviate pain, such as through spinal decompression surgery (through laminectomy, removing a portion of a vertebrae), spinal fusion, and discectomies (removing abnormal disc material that is impinging the spinal cord or a nearby nerve root).
For Arthritic Pain
Rheumatologists are medical doctors and physicians who specialize in rheumatoid pain.
When the cause of a patient’s lower back pain is discovered to rheumatoid arthritis and the strong inflammations it can trigger, then a rheumatologist is called in to treat the problem. Rheumatoid arthritis can manifest in over a hundred different forms of arthritic pain, many of which affect the spine and back
Some common spinal conditions that may require a visit to a rheumatologist include ankylosing spondylitis, transverse myelitis, and more. While spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column, pressing on the spinal cord) is often caused by a different form of arthritis, it can be caused by rheumatoid arthritis as well.
For Neurological Issues
The spine is ultimately what connects the brain to the rest of the body, allowing us to move and function on a daily basis. Yet when certain conditions cause the spinal cord and its surrounding nerve roots to be affected negatively, our ability to move and interact with the world can be severely inhibited.
When it’s clear that a person’s nerve tissue has suffered damage, a neurologist is called in to diagnose the origin point and location of the damage and help develop an effective treatment plan.
Neurologists specialize in the nervous system, and work to identify issues depending on whether your nervous system responds well to normal stimuli, as well as through imaging technology. All forms of spinal degeneration and spine damage that affect the spinal cord can lead to neurological problems. Other disorders these specialists are known for identifying and treating include Parkinson’s, dementia, and symptoms of nerve compression or nerve death (including pain, numbness, weakness, lack of mobility, and paralysis).
A neurologist can also be a neurosurgeon, but only a neurosurgeon can use surgery to treat a neurological problem. They often do so by removing tissue that is impinging the nerve, or even repairing broken nerve fibers and referring patients to special therapists for post-operative physical rehabilitation.
Other Spine Specialist Considerations
The spine is complex, with a wide array of potential causes for pain and discomfort. That calls for a wide array of specialized professionals, depending on how and why a person is experiencing back pain. In addition to the specialists mentioned above, other spine specialists include:
Chiropractors are not medical doctors, and chiropractic is not a branch of traditional medicine. Instead, chiropractors are trained and licensed by several different organizations, most notably the American Chiropractic Association. Chiropractors further specialize to specific areas of the body, such as the spine.
Chiropractic care is an alternative medicine based on body manipulation and treating the musculoskeletal system through physical adjustments.
Unlike chiropractors, osteopaths are medical doctors, but they are doctors who specialized in the physical manipulation of joints and bones through massage and correction.
While chiropractors often mainly focus on back pain and the spine, osteopaths more generally work on all joints and treat a broader range of issues.
Physical therapists are often a critical part of the treatment and rehabilitation process for spinal conditions, as they help patients strengthen the musculature that is ultimately responsible for keeping a patient’s spine healthy after treatment.
Spine-friendly exercise and strengthening can greatly improve a person’s quality of life, reduce their pain, improve their mobility, and bring enjoyment even later in life. Physical therapists are not doctors. Physicians who specialize in physical medicine, rehabilitation, movement, mobility, and sports are called physiatrists, and they treat a wide variety of disorders in the body (including spinal problems).
Choosing the right spine specialist to go to can be daunting, but it’s important to simply seek help from a medical professional to begin with. After a diagnosis is made, physicians can further refer you to specialists who will be able to help you with your specific spinal problem.