Clinically Organized Relevant Exam (CORE) Back Tool

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This tool will guide the family physician and/or nurse practitioner to recognize common mechanical back pain syndromes and screen for other conditions where management may include investigations, referrals and specific medications. This is a focused examination for clinical decision-making in primary care.

Click on the sections below to get started:

History and physical examination

Review History

A patient’s history can help identify:

  • Back or leg dominant pain
  • Intermittent or constant pain
  • Associated aggravating movement
  • Non-mechanical vs. mechanical pain
  • Red flags and yellow flags

Work through questions 1–6 to evaluate the patient’s history

Physical examination

  • An examination refutes or supports the back pain pattern identified in history
  • Referred leg pain will have a normal neurological exam
  • Radicular (nerve) pain will have a positive straight leg raise (SLR) with reproduction of leg pain and possible abnormal neurological signs
  • Interpretation of range of motion includes the pain response to flexion and extension movements

NOTE: Bolded tests are the suggested minimum requirements of the exam.

Gait
  • Heel Walking (L4-5)
  • Toe Walking (S1)
Standing
  • Movement testing in flexion
  • Movement testing in extension
  • Trendelenburg test (L5)
  • Repeated toe raises (S1)
Sitting
  • Patellar reflex (L3-4)
  • Quadriceps power (L3-4)
  • Ankle dorsiflexion power (L4-5)
  • Great toe extension power (L5)
  • Great toe flexion power (S1)
  • Plantar response, upper motor test
Kneeling
  • Ankle reflex
Lying supine
  • Passive straight leg raise (SLR)
  • Passive hip range of motion
Lying prone
  • Femoral nerve stretch (L3-4)
  • Gluteus maximus power (S1)
  • Saddle sensation testing (S2-3-4)
  • Passive back extension (patient uses arms to elevate upper body)

Initial Management

  • Goals may include “to reduce pain” and “to increase activity”
  • Frequent movement in small doses recommended
  • Self management involves patient driven goals for motivating behaviour change like exercise, medication compliance or activity modification
  • Remember that all recovery positions and/or exercises should be customized to the individual patient. This section offers a starting point with links to additional resources

Select pattern for initial managment details

Commonly called
  • Disc Pain
Medication
  • Acetaminophen
  • NSAID
Recovery positions

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Starter exercises
  • Repeated prone lying passive extensions (i.e. hips on ground, arms straight).
  • 10 reps, 3 x day
Exercises
Functional activities
  • Encourage short frequent walking
  • Reduce sitting activities
  • Use extension roll for short duration sitting
Follow-up
  • 2–4 weeks if referred to therapy, or prescribed medication
  • PRN if given home program and relief noted in office visit
Self management
  • Once pain is reduced, engage patient for self management goals

Commonly Called

  • Facet Joint Pain

Medication

  • Acetaminophen
  • NSAID
Recovery Positions
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Starter Exercises

  • Sitting in a chair, bend forward and stretch in flexion.
  • Use hands on knees to push trunk upright.
  • Small frequent repetitions through the day

Exercises

Functional Activities

  • Encourage sitting or standing with foot stool
  • Reduce back extension and overhead reach

Follow-up

  • 2–4 weeks if referred to therapy, or prescribed medication
  • PRN if given home program and relief noted in office visit

Self Management

  • Self management can be initiated in 1st or 2nd session with most patients

 

Commonly Called

  • Compressed Nerve Pain

Medication

  • May require opioids if 1st line pain meds not sufficient
Recovery Positions
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Starter Exercises

  • “Z” lie (see image above)
  • Caution: exercise will aggravate the pain so start with pain reducing positions

Exercises

Functional Activities

  • Change positions frequently from sit to stand to lie to walk

Follow-up

  • 2 weeks for pain management and neurological review

Self Management

  • Patient is not usually suitable for self management due to high pain levels and possible surgical intervention

 

Commonly Called

  • Symptomatic Spinal Stenosis (Neurogenic Claudication)

Medication

  • Acetaminophen
  • NSAID
Recovery Positions
null

Starter Exercises

  • Rest in a seated or other flexed position to relieve the leg pain

Exercises

Functional Activities

  • Use support with walking or standing. Use frequent sitting breaks

Follow-up

  • 6–12 weeks for symptom management and determination of functional impact

Self Management

  • Self management can be initiated in 1st or 2nd session with most patients

 

Non-spine related pain

  • Consider other etiologies prior to pain medications
  • Consider internal organ pain referral such as kidney, uterus, bowel, ovaries

Spine pain does not fit mechanical pattern

  • Consider centralized pain medications (i.e. anti-depressants, anti-seizure, opioids)
  • Consider pain disorder

Referral (if required)

Diagnostic imaging: Tests like X- rays, CT scans and MRIs are not helpful for recovery or management of acute or recurring low back pain unless there are signs of serious pathology. Refer to red flags for details.

Rehabilitation referral criteria (4–12 treatments)

  • Absence of red flags
  • Pain is managed well so that patient can tolerate treatment
  • Pain has mechanical directional preference – varies with movement, position or activity
  • Patient is ready to be an active partner in goal setting and self management

Surgical referral criteria23

  • Failure to respond to evidence based compliant conservative care of at least 12 weeks
  • Unbearable constant leg dominant pain
  • Worsening nerve irritation tests (SLR or femoral nerve stretch)
  • Expanding motor, sensory or reflex deficits
  • Recurrent disabling sciatica
  • Disabling neurogenic claudication

Specialist referral

  • Physiatry
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
  • Pain specialist
  • Multidisciplinary Pain Clinic
  • Rheumatologist

Supporting material

References