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Imaging tests for low back pain

GEHA | October 1, 2018

Physical exercise Everyday health
Low back pain is one of the most common reasons for physician visits in the United States. Learn a few steps to help prevent getting low back pain.

Low back pain – ouch! Whether it’s dull and throbbing or sharp and piercing, it’s difficult to go about our daily routine when we just want relief.

A study by the American College of Physicians showed that low back pain is one of the most common reasons for physician visits in the United States. They categorize it as acute (lasting less than four weeks), subacute (lasting four to 12 weeks) and chronic (lasting more than 12 weeks).

Treatment varies depending on the type and cause of the back pain. Non-drug therapy is initially recommended, such as massage, exercise, acupuncture, yoga, motor control exercise or spinal manipulation. Acute and subacute low back pain usually improves over time.

In some cases, imaging tests can be helpful in the diagnosis and treatment of low back pain. These tests include X-rays, CT scans and MRIs. However, there is concern among physicians about the overuse of imaging because of exposure to radiation and the associated costs of the tests. In addition, sometimes imaging can lead to unnecessary surgery.

When is imaging a good idea? 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.

Tips for preventing low back pain

The lower back can be injured while lifting a heavy object, twisting or making a sudden movement – any of which can cause muscles or ligaments to stretch or develop microscopic tears. Over time, poor posture or repetitive stress can also lead to muscle strain or other soft tissue problems.

Here are things you can do to help prevent low back pain:

  • Exercise your core. Strong core muscles are important to provide support for the lower back and avoid injury.
  • Stretch your hamstrings. A little-known cause of low back pain is tight hamstrings.
  • Correct your posture. Poor posture places pressure on your back and can cause degenerated discs to become more painful.
  • Lift heavy objects correctly. Squat and lift with your legs, not with your back.
  • Improve your overall physical health. The spine reflects the overall health of your body. Anything you can do to improve your physical fitness and general health will benefit your lumbar spine as well.

Sources:, “American College of Physicians issues guideline for treating non-radicular low back pain.”, American College of Physicians, 14 February 2017., “Imaging Tests for Lower-Back Pain.”, American Board of Internal Medicine, April 2012., “7 Tips to Protect Your Lower Back.”, Veritas Health, 29 April 2016., “Good and Bad Exercises for Low Back Pain.”, WebMD LLC, 20 October 2016.