Movement tests for evaluating low back pain

Movement tests for evaluating low back pain include:

  • Walking. You walk while your doctor watches you for things like how you move and carry your body, and whether you limp or favor one leg as you walk.
  • Flexion. You bend forward and try to touch your toes. The extent to which you can bend without significant pain allows your doctor to look for limitation of movement and to check the spinal muscles for signs of muscle sensitivity and spasm.
  • Extension. You hyperextend your back by bending backward.
  • Rotation. You rotate your back by keeping your hips still and turning your upper body from side to side.
  • Side bending. You bend to one side, then the other, keeping your hips level and not letting your body rotate.

In general, increased pain on bending forward (flexion) suggests a disc problem. Pain that increases when bending backward (extending the spine) suggests degenerative changes, spinal stenosis, or spondylolisthesis. When you do side bending and rotation, your doctor is looking for differences between the two sides, such as whether you can bend farther to one side than the other. Spasms of the muscles next to the spine can create pain with any of these tests.

For most people with low back pain, at least one of these tests will cause symptoms. This helps the doctor identify the cause of low back pain.

Last Updated: February 3, 2010

Author: Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPH

Medical Review: William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine & Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics

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