Older adults with new back pain usually end up getting a CT scan or MRI. That’s often a waste of time and money and has little or no effect on the outcome, according to a new study from the University of Washington.
The study followed more than 5,200 men and women over the age of 65 who saw a primary care physician for a new bout of back pain. More than 1,500 of them had some type of back scan within six weeks of the first doctor visit. After reviewing medical records and questionnaires the study participants completed, the researchers found that people who got early scans did no better than those who didn’t have scans. The scans added about $1,400 per person to the overall cost of back pain care — with no measurable benefit. The results were published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association.
Back pain can be very severe. If you haven’t had it before, it can be frightening. It’s natural to want to know why it is happening. Having a CT scan, MRI, or x-ray of the back might seem like it could pinpoint the problem and guide the way to treatment. But as the University of Washington researchers and others have shown, these scans help only the small percentage of people with new-onset back pain accompanied by red-flag symptoms.
Say the imaging test shows a bulging disc or some other change. It could be the cause of your back pain. More likely, though, it isn’t. There is a good chance that treatment will be directed at what shows up on the scan, and it either won’t ease the pain or will make the problem worse.