You may undergo a diagnostic CT scan for your back pain

If you’ve been dealing with neck or back pain, your physician may schedule you for a CT (computed tomography) scan. CT scans are like X-rays, except the resulting images are much more detailed. These tests can help your physician view your spinal structure and then diagnose — or rule out — several common causes of back pain.

What to expect during a CT scan

CT scans are relatively fast and noninvasive. First, you’ll be asked to lie on a table that slides into a CT scanner, which is shaped like a tunnel. As the table moves slowly into the scanner, various detectors and X-rays will move around you. The cameras will capture images from a variety of angles and send them to a computer for processing. The entire process usually takes about 30 minutes.

Some CT scans are performed with the use of contrast dye, which helps certain structures show up more clearly in the resulting images. If your physician recommends the use of contrast dye in your scan, you may need to prepare by fasting for a few hours beforehand. The contrast material will be administered as a pill, drink or intravenous infusion before your scan.

Which conditions can a CT scan diagnose?

Once the results of your CT scan are available, they’ll be sent to your physician for interpretation.

CT scans provide more detailed images than X-rays. They not only show the bones in the spine, but also reveal the surrounding soft tissues. These images can be highly useful in diagnosing a variety of neck and back problems, including:

  • Herniated discs
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Fractures
  • Bone spurs
  • Spondylosis
  • Bulging discs

Sometimes when a CT scan is used for diagnosing back pain, it is followed by one or more other tests, such as an MRI or bone scan.