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Are Doctors Ordering Too Many Imaging Tests for Low Back Pain?

Reader’s Digest Magazine reported August 17, 2011 on four over-prescribed treatments and tests. The first listed was imaging for lower-back pain.

The advice? In most cases, don’t do an imaging test within the first six weeks of pain. Chances are it will go away on its own. Having the test could subject you to unnecessary radiation, stress and treatment, including unnecessary surgery.

The American College of Physicians agrees that X-rays, CT scans and MRIs, while routinely ordered for people with low back pain, are often unnecessary.

One of the big problems with doing too much testing—especially when it comes to the lower back—is that what you find might not be what’s causing your symptoms.
The Hospital for Special Surgery has this to say about the testing needed for an accurate back pain diagnosis:

“There is concern within the medical community that high-tech imaging methods, such as CT scan and MRI, are overused for acute low back pain. Often, these sensitive imaging techniques reveal abnormalities in the lumbar spine that are not the cause of the patient’s pain. In one study, volunteers with no history of back pain were given MRIs and 90% of those over age 60 had degenerative disc disease. MRIs that show abnormalities in the lumbar region that cause no symptoms for the patient are not helpful.”

Of course, there are times when an imaging test is absolutely necessary. A doctor that performs a thorough clinical exam should be able to tell you if an imaging test is required. It’s a good idea to question any doctor’s recommendation, but it’s especially important to question the doctor who does little in the way of a clinical exam. The clinical exam is the time during which the doctor examines you and asks questions about your pain or discomfort.

Click on this link for more about low back pain from the Hospital for Special Surgery.

For more about what physical therapy can do to prevent and relieve back pain, contact A Physical Therapist, Inc.

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