Think you need imaging for your back pain? Think again.
Injury Care & Prevention Sep 16, 2019
Think you need imaging for your back pain? Think again.

If you suffer from back pain, you’re not alone—but you probably knew that already, considering the number of people who share the back pain experience. Here’s a look at the numbers:

  • According to the World Health Organization, 60-70% of American adults will experience pain in their lifetime.
  • More than 30% of American adults have experienced back pain in just the past three months, according to research published by the American Academy of Family Physicians. 
  • Here at Orthology, back pain is the most common type of pain we see among our patients.

Each episode of back pain is unique. It can be a sharp, dull or burning feeling, the pain can be well-defined to a specific area or vague, can fluctuate between severe and mild in a single episode, and can even radiate out beyond the back into the thigh, hip or backside. Regardless of the type of pain, all you want is to start feeling better. And fast.

Imaging: A Common Path

A study from Mayo Clinic found that back pain is one of the top three reasons that people go in for a visit with their doctor. Between 25 and 30% of those complaining of back pain to their doctor receive imaging—the vast majority of which is unneeded. In the U.S. we spend more than $100 billion on imaging that’s not only unnecessary and expensive, but potentially harmful. 

The average radiation required for a spinal X-ray is 75 times greater than for a chest X-ray. Complex imaging such as an MRI can reveal asymptomatic abnormalities that are totally unrelated to a patient’s back pain, but lead to additional tests, procedures or surgeries. 

The driving force behind excessive scans is complicated. But recent studies show that the most effective treatment for acute lower back pain is spinal manipulation. Perhaps the first stop for back pain shouldn’t be your doctor—it should be your Chiropractor instead. 

In turn, your Chiropractor can co-treat you with a Physical Therapist to manipulate soft tissue if spinal manipulation alone isn’t relieving pain, and can also prescribe imaging or refer you to other resources as needed.

The Right Direction

According to medical guidelines, physicians should examine patients with back pain for red flags that suggest infection, fracture or other serious issues. If none are present, no imaging should be ordered within the first six weeks of pain. A lack of red flags indicates muscle strain, a herniated disc or normal wear and tear due to aging—pain that’s usually treatable with over-the-counter medication, chiropractic care or physical therapy.

While time is still the best cure, addressing your back pain with a Physical Therapist or Chiropractor early on can help shorten the back pain timeline, and can help prevent future episodes of pain. And, if you do need imaging or further treatment, your Orthology team is here. Our Chiropractors prescribe imaging as needed help you navigate your path to recovery.


This blog references a full-length article at Undark by Lola Butcher. Learn more about the complicated relationship between physicians and their patients when it comes to treating back pain in the full article here.