MRIs are powerful but can lead doctors on a wild goose chase. At what point should your doctor take a look inside your back with a high-tech MRI or CT scan, or even an old-fashioned X-ray? In most cases, the answer is later rather than sooner.
The rap against MRIs as a diagnostic tool for low back pain is not that the scans usually reveal nothing, or even that they’re expensive, it’s that they often show a lot of abnormalities in the back that may have nothing to do with the source of your pain. With aging, the hard-working spine begins to show signs of wear and tear, such as degeneration of disks and arthritis in joints. But for a pain condition that in most cases resolves itself in less than two months without dramatic intervention, that kind of information isn’t particularly helpful.
MRIs do not expose your body to radiation. But CT scans and X-rays do, which make them especially risky for women with lower back pain who are in their childbearing years.
When do imaging tests make sense?
It can be a good idea to get an imaging test right away if you have signs of severe or worsening nerve damage, or a serious underlying problem such as cancer or a spinal infection. “Red flags” that can alert your doctor that imaging may be worthwhile include:
Your doctor might recommend an MRI if he or she suspects that your low back pain is caused by something more serious than muscle strain. This may be the case if:
The information in this document does not replace a medical consultation. It is for personal guidance use only. We recommend that patients ask their doctors about what tests or types of treatments are needed for their condition.