Imaging Tests for Lower-Back Pain

You probably do not need an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI

X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs are called imaging tests because they take pictures, or images, of the inside of the body. You may think you need one of these tests to find out what is causing your back pain. But these tests usually do not help. Here’s why:

The tests will not help you feel better faster.

Most people with lower-back pain feel better in about a month, whether or not they have an imaging test.

People who get an imaging test for their back pain do not get better faster. And sometimes they feel worse than people who took over-the-counter pain medicine and followed simple steps, like walking, to help their pain.

Imaging tests can also lead to surgery and other treatments that you do not need. In one study, people who had an MRI were much more likely to have surgery than people who did not have an MRI. But the surgery did not help them get better any faster.

Imaging test have risks.

X-rays and CT scans use radiation. Radiation has harmful effects that can add up. It is best to avoid radiation when you can.

Imaging tests are expensive.

Imaging tests can costs hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars depending on the test and where you have it. Why waste money on tests when they don’t help your pain? And if the tests lead to surgery, the costs can be much higher.

When are imaging tests a good idea?

In some cases you may need an imaging test right away. Talk to your doctor if you have back pain with any of the following symptoms:

  • Weight loss that you cannot explain
  • Fever over 102° F
  • Loss of control of your bowel or bladder
  • Loss of feeling or strength in your legs
  • Problems with your reflexes
  • A history of cancer

These symptoms can be signs of nerve damage or a serious problem such as cancer or an infection in the spine.

If you do not have any of these symptoms, we recommend waiting a few weeks.

This report is for you to use when talking with your health-care provider. It is not a substitute for medical advice and treatment. Use of this report is at your own risk.

© 2017 Consumer Reports. Developed in cooperation with the American Academy of Family Physicians.