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Imaging is not preferred treatment for low back pain

GEHA | March 19, 2019

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 is one of the most common reasons for an outpatient visit, affecting about 2.5 million Americans each year. On any given day, 25% of Americans experience back pain.

Studies show that imaging (X-rays, CT scans or MRIs) of the lower spine before six weeks have passed since the pain started does not improve outcomes – but does increase costs. Most patients recover within several weeks. Disc herniations usually regress or reabsorb within eight weeks.

Risks associated with imaging include radiation exposure, more unnecessary treatment and an increase in surgery. An exception to imaging would be when the doctor’s evaluation shows red flags, including a fever, sudden back pain with spinal tenderness, loss of bladder or bowel control, trauma or serious underlying medical condition such as cancer.

In general, imaging should be used for patients when noninvasive, conservative treatments failed and surgery or therapeutic injection are being considered.

You can help prevent low back pain:

  • Exercise your core. Strong core muscles provide support for the lower back.
  • Stretch your hamstrings. Tight hamstrings can cause low back pain.
  • Practice good posture. Poor posture places pressure on your back and can cause degenerated discs to be more painful.
  • Lift heavy objects correctly. Squat and lift with your legs, not with your back.
  • Improve your overall physical health. Anything you do to improve your fitness and general health will benefit your spine, too.

"Imaging for Low Back Pain.", American Academy of Family Physicians, 2023.
"Use of Imaging Studies for Low Back Pain (LBP).", National Committee for Quality Assurance, 2023.