If you experience lower back pain, you may think that getting an X-ray, CT scan or MRI is needed to find the cause of your pain. However, these imaging tests usually don’t help, according to Dr. Matthew Messoline, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.
“Most people with acute lower back pain feel better in about a month, regardless of having an imaging test,” he says. “Those who do get an imaging test for their pain don’t necessarily get better faster. In fact, many cases of back pain can be easily treated with over-the-counter pain medication and through simple things like walking.”
Imaging tests can sometimes lead to surgery and other treatments that may not be necessary. One study suggested that people who had an MRI were much more likely to have surgery than those who did not have an MRI. However, the surgery did not help them get better any faster.
Dr. Messoline also cautions about the risks associated with imaging tests. “X-rays and CT scans use radiation that can add up and be harmful with repeated exposure over time,” he says. “If an imaging test is not necessary, it is best to avoid the exposure to radiation when you can.”
When imaging tests for back pain are recommended
There are instances when an imaging test is needed right away. Dr. Messoline recommends that you talk to your doctor if you experience back pain along with the following:
- Unexplained weight loss
- A fever higher than 102° F
- Loss of control of your bowel or bladder
- Loss of feeling or strength in your legs
- Problems with your reflexes
- History of cancer
“Certain symptoms that accompany back pain can be a sign of nerve damage or a serious problem such as cancer or an infection in the spine,” says Dr. Messoline. “If you do not experience any of these symptoms, waiting a few weeks for the pain to subside is recommended.”
Self-care treatment for lower back pain
Dr. Messoline offers these tips for treating lower back pain at home:
- Stay active. Walking helps ease lower back pain. In fact, staying in bed can make it more difficult to get better.
- Use heat. Try a heating pad, electric blanket, a warm bath or shower to help relax your muscles.
- Take over-the-counter medicines. Try anti-inflammatory medications that help relieve pain and reduce swelling, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen.
- Sleep on your side or back. Lie on your side with a pillow between your knees, or lie on your back with one or more pillows under your knees.
At Sharp Rees-Stealy, we want to empower you to make well-informed choices about your treatment options. That’s why we’ve made it our priority to support our doctors in helping you make smart and effective decisions by participating in Choosing Wisely®.
Choosing Wisely, an initiative of the ABIM Foundation, educates patients and doctors on selecting the most effective treatment available and avoiding unproductive, costly procedures. Sharp Rees-Stealy is the only medical group in Southern California to participate in this national campaign.