Importance: In contrast to the recommendations for younger adults, many guidelines allow for older adults with back pain to undergo imaging without waiting 4 to 6 weeks. However, early imaging may precipitate interventions that do not improve outcomes.
Objective: To compare function and pain at the 12-month follow-up visit among older adults who received early imaging with those who did not receive early imaging after a new primary care visit for back pain without radiculopathy.
Design, setting, and participants: Prospective cohort of 5239 patients 65 years or older with a new primary care visit for back pain (2011-2013) in 3 US health care systems. We matched controls 1:1 using propensity score matching of demographic and clinical characteristics, including diagnosis, pain severity, pain duration, functional status, and prior resource use.
Exposures: Diagnostic imaging (plain films, computed tomography [CT], magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]) of the lumbar or thoracic spine within 6 weeks of the index visit.
Primary outcome: back or leg pain-related disability measured by the modified Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire (score range, 0-24; higher scores indicate greater disability) 12 months after enrollment.
Results: Among the 5239 patients, 1174 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 the disability questionnaire. The mean score for patients who underwent early radiography was 8.54 vs 8.74 among the control group (difference, -0.10 [95% CI, -0.71 to 0.50]; mixed model, P = .36). The mean score for the early MRI/CT group was 9.81 vs 10.50 for the control group (difference,-0.51 [-1.62 to 0.60]; mixed model, P = .18).
Conclusions and relevance: Among older adults with a new primary care visit for back pain, early imaging was not associated with better 1-year outcomes. The value of early diagnostic imaging in older adults for back pain without radiculopathy is uncertain.