Scans and low back pain

While back pain can be very painful and disabling, less than 1% of cases are serious. If your doctor has particular concerns, they can request scans earlier.

If you have had back pain for less than 12 weeks, x-rays and other such scans are not recommended.

When scans are not required for low back pain

Reasons as to why scans are not required include:

  • most scans find no abnormalities or only minor changes
  • people with or without back pain show similar ‘wear and tear’ (arthritic changes)
  • scans do not improve your pain or help you to recover
  • unnecessary x-rays and CT scans bring risks of radiation exposure.

When scans are recommended for low back pain

It is recommended that scans are performed to further assess back and/or leg pain when:

  • your doctor suspects a serious underlying condition
  • you have severe or increasing weakness in specific muscles in your leg or foot
  • your doctor believes you have nerve compression related to a disc herniation (pushed outside its normal position) which has been present for more than four to six weeks and is severe enough to consider surgery
  • your doctor believes your symptoms are related to pressure on nerves caused by narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal claudication).  Scans may then be recommended if your pain has been present for several months and is severe enough to consider surgery.

Costs of scans for low back pain

In most cases a MRI is the preferred imaging option. General practitioners can refer patients for a self-funded MRI with an out-of-pocket cost of between $150 and $300. Individuals are advised to contact radiology providers directly to confirm expenses.

Public patients referred from a specialist in an outpatient clinic can obtain imaging at no out-of-pocket cost.

More information

More information on when scans are required please see the Scans and low back pain (PDF 89KB) fact sheet.