Do I need a CT scan for back pain?

A CT (computed tomography) scan is one of the most commonly used tests for diagnosing neck and back pain. This test is painless, noninvasive and performed on an outpatient basis. The scan itself usually takes only a few minutes to complete, and the results are typically available within a few days (sometimes even sooner). There are no major preparation requirements, although a patient may be instructed not to eat or drink anything for a few hours before a scan.

How does computed tomography work?

CT scans work by using ionizing radiation to produce images of the body. While a patient lies inside a scanner, X-rays are aimed at the targeted area (such as the neck or back) and quickly rotated around the body. This produces signals that are picked up by the scanner’s computer and translated into pictures.

The images produced by computed tomography are more detailed than those produced by standard X-rays, as CT scans collect data from various angles. The resulting cross-sectional images are then combined into one three-dimensional image. Sometimes, a patient is given a contrast agent prior to a scan, which can make certain structures show up with enhanced clarity in the final images.

Additionally, CT scans can produce images of all types of tissue — not just bones, as is the case with conventional X-rays. CT scans can show bones, muscles, ligaments and other soft tissues, making these images exceptionally useful for diagnosing neck and back problems.

When might a CT scan be recommended?

A CT scan for back pain may be recommended if a person has been experiencing symptoms for several consecutive weeks and has not seen an improvement with at-home remedies. Typically, diagnostic imaging tests aren’t advised prior to this point because, in many situations, back pain goes away on its own. A CT scan might be recommended, however, if a physician suspects that a patient might have:

  • A herniated disc
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • A bone spur
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Scoliosis
  • Fractures
  • Another common neck or back condition

Sometimes, a CT scan might be used if a patient has any type of metallic implant in his or her body, as CT scans do not use magnets like MRI scans do. In other cases, a CT scan for back pain is performed alongside one or more other tests, such as an MRI scan, bone scan or diagnostic injection. Taking a thorough approach to back pain diagnosis can increase the likelihood of accurately pinpointing the condition, developing an appropriate treatment plan and getting a person back to his or her daily life.