Comparison of Clinical Guidelines for Authorization of MRI in the Evaluation of Neck Pain and Cervical Radiculopathy in the United States

J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2023 Jan 15;31(2):64-70. doi: 10.5435/JAAOS-D-22-00517.


The American College of Radiology has published appropriateness criteria to help guide when to use MRI. Many health insurance carriers use proprietary clinical guidelines for prior authorization of imaging studies. The purpose of this study was to compare the specific criteria in those guidelines, for neck pain both with and without radicular symptoms. An online search was conducted to identify the guidelines for authorization of cervical spine MRI used by the largest commercial insurance carriers in the United States by market share. Guidelines were analyzed for neck pain with and without radiculopathy. Cervical trauma, myelopathy, infection, neoplasm, multiple sclerosis, and postprocedural care were excluded. The remaining criteria were broken down into categories including clinical symptoms, conservative therapy, other required radiologic studies, and clinical re-evaluation. Individual criteria within each of the categories were compared. After evaluation of the top 56 insurance companies in the United States, 30 companies using four main utilization management companies remained for analysis. After direct comparison of publicly available guidelines documents, notable discrepancies existed between the four companies in all subcategories analyzed. In addition, varying amounts of evidence-based literature was identified to support criteria requirements for prior authorization. This study demonstrates that the guidelines used by private health insurance companies for cervical MRI authorization in the setting of neck pain with and without cervical radiculopathy are inconsistent and use objective measures that have not been validated in the literature. We think this warrants additional scrutiny and investigation.

MeSH terms

  • Cervical Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neck
  • Neck Pain / diagnostic imaging
  • Neck Pain / etiology
  • Neck Pain / therapy
  • Radiculopathy* / diagnostic imaging
  • Spinal Cord Diseases*
  • United States