Scans for Back Pain Ineffective

If you suffer from lower back pain, you may look to X-rays or imaging scans to detect the source of the problem. But new research shows scanning may do more harm than good.

Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland reviewed six clinical trials of 2,000 patients with lower back pain. They found that back pain patients who underwent scans didn’t get better any faster or have less pain, depression or anxiety than patients who weren’t scanned. More important, the data suggested that patients who get scanned for back pain may end up with more pain than those who are left alone.

About two thirds of adults suffer from low back pain at some time in their lives, and low back pain is the second most common symptom that sends people to the doctor. Researchers say the problem is that back scans can turn up physical changes in the back that aren’t really causing any problem. One famous study from The New England Journal of Medicine gave MRI’s to 98 people with no back pain. Two out of three of them came back with reports that showed disk problems.

The bottom line: those tests can result in adding cost, exposing people to radiation and even unnecessary surgery.

The researchers recommend patients ask their doctors why a scan or X-ray is needed rather than using pain relief and exercise to cope while a back heals on its own. Most back pain gets better within 30 days if a patient takes normal precautions after a pain episode. They say if back pain persists for longer than a month, or if symptoms suggest a more serious problem like an infection or tumor, then an X-ray or scan may be needed.

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