Harvard Men's Health Watch

Many scans for back pain may be unnecessary

Many MRI scans for people with lower back pain are not medically necessary, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Experts used widely accepted criteria to decide, after the fact, if MRI scans ordered for back pain or headaches were really necessary to diagnose or treat the problem effectively. Sometimes a scan is not likely to reveal anything especially useful.

The study found that only 44% of scans of the lumbar spine (the lower back) were appropriate. Of the remaining scans, 56% were deemed either inappropriate or of "uncertain value." The study also looked at MRIs for headache, but found that the clear majority, 83%, were deemed medically valuable.

Most men endure back pain sometime in their lives. But before you undergo diagnostic scanning, make sure it's really needed. MRI scans of the lumbar spine could pick up suspicious-looking features nearby that can cause you anxiety, follow-up testing, and medical visits, but turn out to be nothing.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »