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).

October 27, 2014

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.


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