10 Types of Back Doctors

Man complains of arm symptoms to his doctor.
Man complains of arm symptoms to his doctor. ADAM GAULT/SPL/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

10 Types of Back Doctors

It's common knowledge that back doctors are not all created equal.  Numerous medical specialties exist for a person with neck or back pain to get treatment.  So who do you turn to, and when?  Here's a short list:

Family and General Practitioners:

Your family doctor is usually the first place to go at the onset of neck or back pain.  If you have a serious problem, she will probably order diagnostic tests, refer you to a specialist and/or help with short-term pain management by prescribing medication.

Studies show that family doctors do not easily adapt their practices to new back pain treatments. Because of this, taking a pro-active approach when determining the best treatment given your specific condition may prove helpful to you. One way you can do this is to research your options before seeking the doctor. Asking pointed questions while you're at your appointment is another way.


Pediatricians provide diagnosis and treatment for a range of childhood health problems including back pain and injuries. A pediatrician is the family doctor for a child from birth until the early adult years. If your child's spine condition requires a specialist, your pediatrician will likely refer you.

Emergency Room Doctors:

The emergency room is often the destination for people with neck or back injuries that need immediate medical attention.  These include serious neck injuries that result from things like car accidents, falls or gunshot wounds.

  They also include symptoms of  cauda equina syndrome, for example,  loss of bowel or bladder function, or if your legs grow progressively weaker.


An orthopedic doctor is a board certified M.D. who specializes in problems - from head to toes - of the musculoskeletal system.  This includes, of course, the spine.

An orthopedist might address conditions such as ruptured discs, scoliosis or other types of neck or low back pain.  Some of the procedures performed by orthopedic surgeons can also be done by neurosurgeons (see below.)  Examples of such surgeries include spinal fusion, discectomies and more.


A rheumatologist is a board certified M.D. who treats arthritis.  While many specialize in inflammatory forms of arthritis, there are, according to the American College of Rheumatology more than 100 different types of of the disease.  This means seeing a rheumatologist for conditions spinal stenosis is not out of the question.  But in general, a rheumatologist sees patients who have symptoms of sacroiliitis, axial spondylosis, ankylosing spondylitis, and related problems.

Related: Sacroiliitis


A neurologist is a doctor who diagnoses and treats problems with the nervous system. Much of this field is focused on people who have had a stroke or have Parkinson’s disease or similar brain related diseases.

Neurologists might be the doctor of choice if your back or neck pain is chronic and longstanding, as these physicians are experts in the origins of pain. A neurologist will examine the functioning of nerves.  They can be either M.D.s or osteopathic physicians, and they do not perform spine surgery.


A neurosurgeon specializes in diseases and conditions of the central nervous system, and the nerves that branch out from the spine (called the peripheral nervous system.) A neurosurgeon might perform surgery on the brain, the spinal cord or on the spine itself. While neurosurgeons do provide non-surgical management of back pain, you may be referred to one after exhausting all your conservative care options, rather than before. 


Chiropractic is a licensed, hands-on, alternative medicine discipline that views and treats health through the effect spinal alignment has on the functioning of the entire body. Chiropractors treat subluxations, a term that means something different to the chiropractor than it does to a conventional medical doctor.  Chiropractors consider their work to be a healing art and science that uses adjustments to remove interruptions to the flow of nerve transmission. Because nerves reach out to and serve all areas of the body, adjusting and re-aligning subluxations is thought to improve general health.

Osteopathic Physicians:

An osteopath is board certified physician who treats all areas of the body.  Osteopaths take a whole person approach - looking at lifestyle, environment, diet and more to diagnose and treat.  They routinely use their hands in the process. With little exception, osteopaths do not do surgery.


The physiatrist is a board certified physician who specializes in physical functioning.  This growing sub-specialty provides rehabilitation for all kinds of conditions and injuries from stroke to low back pain, athletic injuries and more. Quite often, the physiatrist will coordinate a patient's team of specialists, ensuring a treatment plan that effectively addresses your specific medical needs.



A Career in Orthopaedics. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Web. Sept 2002. Accessed February 2007, from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/fact/thr_report.cfm?Thread_ID=375&topcategory=General%20Information

Dictionary of Cancer Terms Neurologist. National Cancer Institute Web site. Accessed: February 2007. 

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