Appropriate use of diagnostic imaging in low back pain: a reminder that unnecessary imaging may do as much harm as good

J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011 Nov;41(11):838-46. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2011.3618. Epub 2011 Jun 3.


The rate of lumbar spine magnetic resonance imaging in the United States is growing at an alarming rate, despite evidence that it is not accompanied by improved patient outcomes. Overutilization of lumbar imaging in individuals with low back pain correlates with, and likely contributes to, a 2- to 3-fold increase in surgical rates over the last 10 years. Furthermore, a patient's knowledge of imaging abnormalities can actually decrease self-perception of health and may lead to fear-avoidance and catastrophizing behaviors that may predispose people to chronicity. The purpose of this clinical commentary is as follows: (1) to describe an outline of the appropriate use, as defined in recent guidelines, of diagnostic imaging in patients with low back pain; (2) to describe how inappropriate use of lumbar spine imaging can increase the risk of patient harm and contributes to the recent large increases in healthcare costs; (3) to provide physical therapists with clear guidelines to educate patients on both appropriate imaging and information to dampen the potential negative effects of imaging on patients' perceptions and health; and (4) to present an example of a successful clinical pathway that has reduced imaging and improved outcomes.

Level of evidence: Diagnosis/prognosis/therapy, level 5.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Equipment Safety
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / diagnosis*
  • Low Back Pain / pathology
  • Low Back Pain / rehabilitation
  • Lumbosacral Region*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / adverse effects*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / instrumentation
  • Male
  • Mass Screening
  • Patient Care
  • Physical Therapy Specialty*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / instrumentation*