A simple technique could help doctors differentiate between patients with different causes of back pain and thus improve treatment, a study suggests.
Researchers writing in PLoS Medicine have devised "bedside" tests which distinguish between neuropathic - nerve damage - and other causes of pain. Neuropathic pain is commonly described as "burning" or "stabbing" but it is often difficult to formally diagnose.
Back pain is the most commonly cited reason for being absent from work.
A team from Massachusetts General Hospital in the US and Addenbrooke's in the UK recruited more than 300 patients with chronic back pain. Some had a known history of nerve damage caused by diabetes or shingles, while others had low back pain with or without evidence of spinal nerve root damage.
By carrying out detailed comparisons of the patients, researchers were able to formulate a set of six questions and 10 physical tests which distinguished between the two groups.