The Difference Between Back Doctors

Learn how to determine which type of back doctor is right for your back pain

There are several non-invasive options for relief of back pain: exercise, ice, heat, medication, and physical therapy. What do you do when conservative back pain relief treatments don’t heal the pain or it becomes worse? Then it’s time to seek help from a back doctor. But what kind of spine physician is the right kind for you?

Finding the right kind of back doctor

Choosing the appropriate spine physician can be confusing, especially because there are many options. That’s why your first stop should be your primary care doctor.

Your primary care provider knows you and your medical history. He or she will likely recommend further non-invasive treatments first, such as physical therapy or medication. They may also opt to perform tests or x-rays to investigate more serious conditions, such as arthritis or disc herniation or spinal canal narrowing, called spinal stenosis.

Whether your back pain appears to stem from muscular or spinal issues, your primary care provider may recommend that you see a specialist. This is the natural next step in the treatment process.

There are several types of back specialists that you would be able to choose from depending on the nature of your back pain.

Rehabilitation physician (also called a physiatrist)

A rehabilitation physician specializes in treating conditions involving the musculoskeletal system, which includes bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, vertebrae and discs. Also known as physiatrists, these medical doctors do not perform surgery, but treat joint pain, arthritis, bursitis, neck and back pain, and sports injuries, such as a torn meniscus or rotator cuff tear. They often prescribe physical therapy or rehabilitation as part of a care plan. They also administer cortisone injections, spinal injections such as epidurals, or gel injections in the knees to treat pain non-invasively.


A neurologist diagnoses, treats, and helps patients manage disorders of the nervous system, which encompasses the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, but they do not perform surgery. While you may not immediately think to choose a neurologist for back pain, neurologists are often consulted for low back pain cases because the nervous system carries pain signals from the spine to the brain. Neurologists also treat conditions including Parkinson’s disease, movement disorders, tremors, concussion, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.

What if your back pain requires surgery?

If you and your back doctor determine that your condition requires surgery, there are two excellent options for surgeons.


A neurosurgeon diagnoses and performs highly technical surgeries to address diseases and disorders of the nervous system, including brain and spine trauma, tumors, disc herniations, spinal stenosis, and spinal fractures. Neurosurgeons also treat brain blood clots of the brain, strokes, brain aneurysm, brain tumors, and disc herniation. Because they operate on the central and peripheral nervous systems, neurosurgeons must be rigorously trained over many years.

Orthopedic spine surgeon

An orthopedic surgeon is trained to diagnose, prevent, and treat musculoskeletal problems. Many orthopedic surgeons subspecialize. An orthopedic spine surgeon goes through the same education as an orthopedic surgeon but receives extensive further training on spinal surgery and deformities. Plus, as part of his or her training, an orthopedic spine surgeon completes an additional fellowship specializing in complex spine-related problems.

Neurosurgeons and orthopedic spine surgeons at times work together to perform complex spine procedures.

In addition to education and experience, other topics to ask a potential surgeon include:

  • Outcomes of their other patients who have conditions like yours.
  • All possible treatment options and their likely outcomes for you.
  • Whether non-invasive techniques or surgery are called for, and why.
  • Proof of board certification in their specialty.

Learn more about New Jersey Brain and Spine’s comprehensive spine center, featuring highly trained neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, and rehabilitation medicine physicians (physiatrists). We specialize in neck and back pain, sciatica, herniated discs, spinal stenosis, sports injuries, and interventional pain management.

Contact us online for an appointment or more information.