Dear Pictured Out:
Surprisingly, no: Most people with low back pain do not need imaging studies (x-ray, MRI, etc). Unless there are signs of a serious issue, studies show there is no benefit to looking inside the human body for a cause of low back pain (Chou, 2009).
"Imaging should be obtained for patients with ‘red flags’ for serious underlying illnesses," explains Jim Fiechtl, MD, a sports medicine physician at Vori Health. "Fortunately, these red flags are not very common."
Still, we scan, x-ray, probe, and prod—all in an effort to know more, which may, in fact, harm more than help. "Patients with early imaging are more likely to undergo surgery, use opioid pain medications more, have higher pain scores at the end of treatment, and spend more money for their back issues," says Dr. Fiechtl.
Unnecessary imaging may also cause unnecessary stress: Some studies indicate that an abnormal imaging finding of a degenerative disc—which is, in fact, a completely normal part of the aging process—may cause a patient to feel extra worry and self-doubt about their body (Flynn, 2011).
"We know that the vast majority of symptomatic patients get better with simple, straightforward treatments and don’t require surgery." says Dr. Fiechtl. "Sometimes providers get caught up...treating the MRI rather than the patient,"
If you or a loved one are experiencing back pain, get help with personalized care plans that put the patient first.