American College of Emergency Physicians

View all recommendations from this society

October 27, 2014

Avoid lumbar spine imaging in the emergency department for adults with non-traumatic back pain unless the patient has severe or progressive neurologic deficits or is suspected of having a serious underlying condition (such as vertebral infection, cauda equina syndrome, or cancer with bony metastasis).

Low back pain without trauma is a common presenting complaint in the emergency department (ED). Most of the time, such pain is caused by conditions such as a muscle strain or a bulging disc that cannot be identified on an X-ray or CT scan. When a patient has symptoms or physical findings of a serious or progressive neurological condition, or is suspected of having a serious underlying condition such as cancer or a spinal infection, imaging may be appropriate and may include plain X-rays or advanced imaging (e.g., MRI or CT scan). Diagnostic imaging does not accurately identify the cause of most low back pain and does not improve the time to recovery. The vast majority of cases of back pain in the ED are related to muscle strain or inflammation. As a result, routine imaging of the low back should be avoided in order to reduce ionizing radiation exposure and unnecessary cost.


These items are provided solely for informational purposes and are not intended as a substitute for consultation with a medical professional. Patients with any specific questions about the items on this list or their individual situation should consult their physician.

How The List Was Created

1–5: The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) developed five Choosing Wisely® recommendations through a multi-step process that included input from ACEP members, an expert panel of emergency physicians and the ACEP Board of Directors. In 2012, ACEP appointed a task force to address cost effective emergency care. The Cost Effective Care Task Force conducted a survey that was open to all ACEP members asking for strategies to reduce cost and improve value in emergency medicine. The task force received over 200 individual suggestions, which were grouped into a set of strategies. A technical expert panel, including representatives from all aspects of emergency medicine practice, reviewed and prioritized the recommendations using a modified Delphi technique. The panel prioritized the strategies using multiple rounds of voting based on contribution to cost reduction, benefit to patients and actionability by emergency physicians. A literature review including data on cost was assembled for the highest-rated strategies. Strategies were further refined and a final list of strategies that received majority support of the panelists was created. Five of these were ultimately selected by the Board of Directors to be included in Choosing Wisely®.

6–10: The entire ACEP membership (30,000+) was surveyed and given an opportunity to provide input on what in their view would be cost effective and improve the quality of patient care. A Delphi panel of emergency physicians was convened and the list was winnowed using the Delphi process to the top twelve. To be included in the top twelve, there must be research to demonstrate cost effectiveness and improvement of patient care if implemented with reason, caution and explanation to the patient. Also of importance was the consideration that the recommendations would be or are also in concert with some of the other specialties participating in the Choosing Wisely® campaign.

ACEP’s disclosure and conflict of interest policy can be found at www.acep.org.

Sources

Chou R, Qaseem A, Snow V, Casey D, Cross JT Jr, Shekelle P, Owens DK; Clinical Efficacy Assessment Subcommittee of the American College of Physicians; American College of Physicians; American Pain Society Low Back Pain Guidelines Panel. Diagnosis and treatment of low back pain: a joint clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society. Ann Intern Med. 2007 Oct 2;147(7):478-91.

Adult low back pain, 12th edition. Bloomington (MN): Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement (ICSI); 2006 Sep. 37 p.

van Tulder M, Becker A, Bekkering T, Breen A, del Real MT, Hutchinson A, Koes B, Laerum E, Malmivaara A; COST B13 Working Group on Guidelines for the Management of Acute Low Back Pain in Primary Care. Chapter 3. European guidelines for the management of acute nonspecific low back pain in primary care. 2004. Eur Spine J. 2006 Mar;15 Suppl 2:S169-91.

Australian Acute Musculoskeletal Pain Group. Evidence-based Management of Acute Musculoskeletal Pain. Acute Low Back Pain. Chapters 4 & 9, pg 25-62 and 183-188. 2003.

Bussieres AE, Taylor JA, Peterson C. Diagnostic imaging practice guidelines for musculoskeletal complaints in adults -an evidence-based approach part 3: spinal disorders. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2008 Jan;31(1):33-88.

Tracey NG, Martin JB, McKinstry CS, Matthew BM. Guidelines for lumbar spine radiography in acute low back pain: effect of implementation in an accident and emergency department. Ulster Med J. 1994 Apr;63(1):12-17.