How Taking a Back Pain Health Risk Assessment Can Help You

Kevin Fitzpatrick, MD is a board-certified physiatrist (physical medicine and rehabilitation physician) with Inova Spine Program.

Back pain is one of the most common conditions that bring people into the doctor’s office. According to Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, 65 million Americans reported having had back pain recently. And for 16 million Americans, back pain is a chronic problem that affects their daily lives. According to some estimates, up to 80 percent of people in the U.S. will deal with back pain at some point – and many of those people will be unsure whether they should see their doctors about their back pain.

Fortunately, there is a great tool available to help people evaluate their symptoms and decide on next steps. It’s called a health risk assessment, or HRA. The Inova Spine Program has a free health risk assessment (HRA) for back and neck pain.

How does an HRA work, and what does it include?

While it won’t be able to give you a specific diagnosis, the back and neck pain HRA is a good screening tool that can help you:

  • Monitor your back or neck pain over time
  • Decide whether further evaluation is needed by your primary care provider or a spine pain management specialist
  • Track changes in your condition and your response to treatment
  • Understand what next steps may be needed to determine the cause of your back pain

The back and neck pain HRA includes questions about:

  • Symptoms that may be related to a spine problem
  • How those symptoms are impacting your daily activities and functional abilities
  • Red flag issues that may require more urgent or immediate attention

At the end of the HRA, you will receive a numerical score. The higher the score, the more significant your symptoms may be.

How often should I take an HRA?

If you’re not being treated for back pain but are having some back pain symptoms, it’s useful to take a back and neck pain HRA twice a year. Doing it twice a year allows enough time to pass between HRAs that it is easier to see if your condition has changed significantly or worsened to the point that it may require medical attention.

If you are being seen by a spine specialist, your doctor may also ask you to fill out the back and neck pain HRA at each office visit to use as a benchmark.

Tips to keep your back strong between HRAs

Taking an HRA regularly is a good way to monitor your spine health, but there are several other ways you can keep your spine healthy:

  • Do low-impact cardiovascular exercise that does not cause pain
  • Add some low-intensity, high repetition weight training to your exercise regimen
  • Try some core and abdominal muscle strengthening exercises
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid activities that make your pain worse

What red-flag spine symptoms should I be aware of?

In between your HRA evaluations, there are a few symptoms that require urgent medical attention. They include:

  • Weakness – especially foot drop with back pain
  • Numbness or loss of sensation that is getting worse
  • Back pain traveling below the knee
  • Neck pain traveling below the elbow
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control in the setting of back pain

Final considerations

There is no single instrument or questionnaire that can capture all circumstances that may require attention. So, if there are symptoms that are concerning to you, even if they are not on the questionnaire, they should be seen to. Talk with your primary care provider to determine what other evaluation or treatment may be needed for the symptoms you’re having.

The Inova Spine Program offers complete spine care including nonsurgical physical and rehabilitation therapies, pain management, and surgery, with centers of excellence throughout Northern Virginia. Call 703-776-4700 for an appointment.

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