May 30, 2024 | Net Health

7 min read

ICD-10 Low Back Pain Explained

Navigating the complex world of ICD-10 coding can feel overwhelming for those new to coding and billing or who may not regularly work within the ICD-10 coding structure. But it’s important for rehab therapists to understand the basics of ICD-10 codes for ailments, like chronic low back pain, that affect such a large number of their patients.

Understanding and applying the right ICD-10 codes—such as code M54.5, which is used for general low back pain—not only streamline billing processes but also enhances the precision of treatment plans and patient outcomes.

Below, we take a deep dive into the nuances of ICD-10 coding specifically for low back pain, helping rehab therapists maximize their clinical efficacy and ensure compliance in documentation.

What Are ICD-10 and ICD-10-CM Codes?

If you’re new to billing and coding, ICD-10—short for the International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision—is a coding system used to track and catalog injury and disease for clinical, epidemiological, and health management purposes.

It is part of a diagnosis code set maintained by the World Health Organization (WHO) that is used around the world to standardize the classification of diseases and other health-related issues. The system enables healthcare providers such as rehab therapists to accurately record, report, analyze, and compare health information across clinics, healthcare facilities, hospitals, regions, states, and countries.

ICD-10-CM codes are the U.S. clinical modification of ICD-10. The “CM” in ICD-10-CM stands for “Clinical Modification.” These codes are used in the U.S. for coding and classifying morbidity data from inpatient and outpatient records, physician offices, and most healthcare settings. The ICD-10-CM code set replaced ICD-9-CM codes in 2015.

Overall, an ICD-10 code has multiple purposes.


This code provides a standardized system for coding medical conditions, so incidents of these conditions are consistently recorded across different healthcare providers and settings. This is critical in comparing health information across place and time.

Epidemiological Research

By categorizing diseases, ICD-10 enables the more accurate and efficient identification of disease patterns and health trends which can inform public health decisions.

Healthcare Administration and Policy Making

Codes are essential in the administration of healthcare, including managing healthcare services, monitoring resource allocation, and reimbursing healthcare providers. They are also integral in developing relevant and impactful healthcare policies.

Clinical Use

For clinicians such as rehab therapists, especially in a physical therapy practice, ICD-10 helps with diagnosing and treating conditions like chronic low back pain and acute low back pain. It ensures diagnostic categorization is detailed and precise to help practitioners provide better quality of care.

Insurance Billing

Finally, these codes are key in ensuring accuracy in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and musculoskeletal ailments, like chronic low back pain or acute low back pain. This enabled both private and public payers to process claims effectively in the physical therapy space.

ICD-10 code for lower back pain submitted by physical therapist

Applying ICD-10 for Low Back Pain Patients

Around 28% of adults in the U.S. report having low back and/or sciatica pain. That’s a significant number, one even more extraordinary when considering that 44% of these adults say they’ve experienced this low back pain pain for five years or longer.

To put this into perspective, chronic back pain sufferers are those who experience back pain for greater than three months, and yet the pain remains.

It’s little surprise then that low back pain is the most common cause of missed work in the country. Between treatment costs and lost wages, it’s been shown that back pain costs the U.S. economy around $253 billion a year.

With so many people who can benefit from quality, cost-effective treatment for low back pain (like that performed by physical therapists), it’s crucial medical providers regularly brush up on coding related to this common ailment.

Common Codes for Low Back Pain

Accurate documentation using ICD-10 codes is essential when treating patients with lower back pain. While ICD 10 code variations relate to back pain, neck pain, lower leg pain, and issues of the lumbar spine, the following three are most commonly seen and used by physical therapists.

  • M54.5 (Low back pain, unspecified): Code M54.5 is used for a nonspecific diagnosis of low back pain, without assigning a cause. Code M54.5 is one of the most commonly used codes in clinical settings, especially physical therapy, where detailed diagnoses have not been established.
  • M54.41 (Lumbago with sciatica, right side) and M54.42 (Lumbago with sciatica, left side): These diagnosis codes are used when low back pain is accompanied by sciatic nerve pain radiating to the legs.
  • M54.16 (Radiculopathy, lumbar region) and M54.17 (Radiculopathy, lumbosacral region): These codes are used for patients experiencing pain due to nerve root issues in the lumbar or lumbosacral spine.

Other low back paindiagnosis codes rehab therapists may encounter or use within her documentation include:

  • M51.27 (Other intervertebral disc displacement, lumbosacral region). This diagnosis code is used for cases where a confirmed disc displacement in the lumbosacral region causes lower back pain. This may also be referred to as lumbago due to intervertebral disc displacement.
  • M51.37 (Other intervertebral disc degeneration, lumbosacral region). This diagnosis code describes degenerative disc disease in the lumbosacral area exists that results in lower back pain.
  • M48.06 (Spinal stenosis, lumbar region). This code is used for patients diagnosed with spinal stenosis in the lumbar region, which can cause significant back pain.
  • M53.3 (Sacrococcygeal disorders, not elsewhere classified). This code is applied when pain is localized to the sacrococcygeal region.
  • S33.5XXA (Sprain of ligaments of the lumbar spine, initial encounter). This diagnosis code is for initial encounters for care following a sprain of the lumbar spine ligaments.
  • M54.31 (Sciatica, right side) and M54.32 (Sciatica, left side). This code is used for sciatica that affects the right or left sides, where the pain radiates along the sciatic nerve from the back down through the leg.
  • M47.816 (Spondylosis without myelopathy or radiculopathy, lumbar region). This code is used when the patient has spondylosis in the lumbar region, which does not involve spinal cord compression or nerve root pain.
  • M47.817 (Spondylosis without myelopathy or radiculopathy, lumbosacral region). This diagnosis code covers spondylosis in the lumbosacral region without myelopathy or radiculopathy.
  • M50.30 (Other cervical disc degeneration, unspecified cervical region). Although primarily a cervical spine code, this can be relevant for therapists treating patients who have multiple spinal issues, including lower back pain.
  • M53.2X (Spinal instabilities). This code is used to describe cases where there is a greater range of motion than expected between two vertebrae and can be specified further based on the region, such as lumbar or lumbosacral, which is often relevant in cases where instability contributes to lower back pain.
  • M99.03 (Segmental and somatic dysfunction of the lumbar region). This code is used for biomechanical dysfunctions that affect the lumbar spine, impacting function and causing pain.
  • M43.27 (Spondylolisthesis, lumbosacral region). This code is used specifically when one of the lower vertebrae slips forward onto the bone directly beneath it, often causing lower back pain.
  • M54.6 (Pain in the thoracic spine). While it specifies the thoracic spine, patients may experience overlapping symptoms that affect both the thoracic and lumbar regions.
  • R10.9 (Unspecified abdominal pain). Use this diagnosis code when the patient experiences abdominal pain but the exact location is not specified.

Using ICD-10 for Low Back Pain in Rehab Therapy

Coding updates can make using the appropriate code difficult for rehab therapists, so stay on top of any revisions. This can include implementing an EHR system that stays up to date on changes and will assist in selecting appropriate codes based on assessment documentation.

As the healthcare landscape continues to evolve, the importance of accurate coding becomes increasingly central in the effective management of low back pain.  ICD-10 coding for patients suffering from both acute and chronic lower back pain can help practitioners better assess, diagnose, and treat patients.

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