An X-ray can help a physician make a back pain diagnosis

For individuals with chronic back pain, an X-ray may be recommended to help determine the underlying cause of their condition. X-rays use radiation to produce images of the body’s internal structures. Dense tissues, such as bones, tend to block the rays, while soft tissues, such as muscles, allow the rays to pass through to the film. Therefore, X-ray images can provide a visible contrast between these types of tissue, allowing certain abnormalities to be seen.

What to expect from the X-ray process

Depending on which part of your neck or back is being studied, you may be asked to lie down or stand up for your X-ray. Once you’re in the proper position, you’ll be asked to hold your breath as the X-ray machine captures the necessary images of your spine. Images may be taken from several angles.

Spinal X-rays usually take only 10 to 15 minutes to complete. The process is painless and the results are usually available shortly after the procedure is finished.

Possible causes of back pain that an X-ray can help diagnose

Although X-rays are not the most detailed type of imaging scan available, they can be helpful for diagnosing — or ruling out — certain spinal conditions. For instance, X-rays can reveal the presence of:

  • Bone spurs
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Scoliosis
  • Bone fractures
  • Facet syndrome

It’s important to note that X-rays cannot reveal problems affecting muscles, nerves or other soft tissues. This means that X-rays are typically not used to diagnose spinal stenosis, sciatica or slipped discs, among other conditions. As a result, one or more other types of imaging scans (e.g., an MRI or a bone scan) may be performed after an X-ray to reveal the cause of back pain.