Back Pain

Imaging Tests Improve the Outcome of Back Pain Treatment

Back pain is one of the most common pain conditions and a leading cause of work disability. Effective treatment is hard to come by because there are many potential causes of pain, most of which are difficult to diagnose.

One common diagnostic method for chronic back pain is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Research over the past few years has called into question the usefulness of this type of test for properly diagnosing the cause of pain, as it may falsely identify “abnormalities” in the spine as the cause of pain when the abnormalities themselves are asymptomatic. There is growing opposition in the medical community to using this diagnostic method for cases of back pain without neurological symptoms.

Unnecessary tests drive up medical bills without yielding results. The problem with MRIs should not be taken to mean that all imagining tests for back pain are called into question, however. Research has found that a type of test called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) may be a more reliable tool for steering the course of treatment.

The Test

The SPECT imaging test involves the injection of a radioactive substance into a patient’s body. It affords medical professionals a detailed look into what is happening in your back, including the way blood is flowing and sites of inflammation. The test holds more promise than a basic bone scan, MRI or X-ray for identifying sneaky causes of pain.

Currently, the SPECT is used mainly for analyzing and diagnosing problems within the brain, heart and bones. With increasing evidence of its useful in back pain diagnosis, it may someday soon move into this area as well.

Recently, researchers assessed the impacts of SPECT imaging in conjunction with basic computed tomography (CT) on patient outcomes compared to a control group receiving no imaging tests before treatment. Forty adults were in each group. Many more members in the imaging test group attained at least 50% pain reduction than in the control group. Twenty-eight who received scans achieved between 70% and 100% pain relief, compared to only 10 in the control group. The imaging tests altered diagnosis for 23 of the patients in the bone scan group. These results suggest that the test can lead to more effective treatment. Learn more about the study at

This is not the only evidence in support of using SPECT as part of back pain diagnosis. For example, a 2006 study found that the imaging test helped prevent needless administration of facet joint injections and led to more effective treatment. See more on this at

Effective treatment starts with an accurate diagnosis, and the SPECT imaging test may help some patients achieve both. If more research confirms its usefulness, the SPECT may become a more standard, insured diagnosis test for back pain patients.

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