This procedure uses low-level radiation that passes through the body to produce a two-dimensional picture called a radiograph. An x-ray can diagnose fractures or other problems of the bones.
Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a procedure that uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to create pictures of areas inside the back. Unlike an x-ray, which shows bony structures, an MRI scan produces clear pictures of soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. MRIs are most useful for diagnosing serious spinal conditions or when surgery is being considered. Serious spinal conditions are very rare. In fact, less than two percent of people with low back pain have a serious condition.
A computerized axial tomography, or CT, scan is a painless procedure where x-rays are passed through the back at different angles, detected by a scanner, and analyzed by a computer. CT scan images show soft tissues such as ligaments or muscles more clearly than conventional x-rays. The computer can combine individual images to produce a three-dimensional view of the back. Providers may order CT scans to look for problems including herniated discs, tumors, or spinal stenosis.
It’s important to keep in mind that these medical tests may not show the cause of back pain. Many times, the cause of back pain is not shown on imaging tests because the cause is mechanical in nature. Fortunately, it is not necessary to know the cause of back pain in order to recover from it.