Imaging for Back Pain Often Doesn't Help Older Adults

By Pat Anson, Editor

Spending thousands of dollars on CT scans or MRI’s is often a waste of time and money for older adults with low back pain, according to a large new study published in JAMA.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle say older adults with lower back pain who had spine imaging within six weeks of visiting a primary care doctor had pain and disability over the following year that was no different than other patients who did not have advanced imaging.

“Among older adults with a new primary care visit for back pain, early imaging was not associated with better one-year outcomes. The value of early diagnostic imaging in older adults for back pain without radiculopathy is uncertain,” said Jeffrey G. Jarvik, MD, a professor of radiology in the UW School of Public Health, who studies the cost effectiveness of treatments for patients with low back pain.

Jarvik and his colleagues studied over 5,200 adults aged 65 or older who had a new primary care visit for back pain at three U.S. health care systems. They followed up with the patients 12 months later, comparing pain and disability for those who received early imaging with those who did not. The imaging included radiographs (X-rays), computed tomography (CT scans) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the lumbar or thoracic spine.

Among the patients studied, 1,174 had early radiographs and 349 had early MRI/CT. At 12 months, neither the early radiograph group nor the early MRI/CT group differed significantly from controls on measures of back or leg pain-related disability.

When to image older adults with back pain remains controversial. Some guidelines recommend that older adults undergo early imaging because they are more likely to have serious underlying medical conditions, such as cancer or infections.

The American College of Radiology recommends early imaging with MRI for patients older than 70 with back pain, as well as patients older than 50 with osteoporosis. European guidelines say patients older than 55 with back pain should have imaging.

However, Jarvik says there is no strong evidence to support those guidelines.

“Despite the lack of evidence supporting routine imaging for older adults with back pain, guidelines commonly recommend that older patients with back pain undergo imaging,” he wrote. "Our study results support an alternative position that regardless of age, early imaging should not be performed routinely.”

Jarvik says adverse consequences from early imaging are more likely in older adults because they can lead to unnecessary treatments, including steroids injections and surgery.

Early imaging for lower back pain is not recommended for people at any age, according to the Choosing Wisely campaign, an initiative of the ABIM Foundation to encourage physicians and patients to make better choices about their healthcare treatment.

Most people with lower-back pain feel better in about a month whether they get an imaging test or not. In fact, those tests can lead to additional procedures that complicate recovery,” Choosing Wisely states on its website.

“A study that looked at 1,800 people with back pain found that those who had imaging tests soon after reporting the problem fared no better and sometimes did worse than people who took simple steps like applying heat, staying active, and taking an OTC pain reliever. Another study found that back-pain sufferers who had an MRI in the first month were eight times more likely to have surgery, and had a five-fold increase in medical expenses.”

According to, an MRI of the lower back can range from $880 to $1,230, and a CT scan from $1,080 to $1,520.