Low back pain: scans are unlikely to help

The cause of acute low back pain is often difficult to identify, but in most cases is related to things like muscle strain rather than spinal or bone damage.

X-rays are often used to look at the bones in the body, but are not able to give a clear picture of soft tissue (like muscles or ligaments) and are not able to show the cause of pain.

For most cases of acute low back pain, X-rays and other scans are not necessary.

Research shows that in most cases having a scan does not change the treatment you receive or how fast you recover; and you don’t want to expose yourself to unnecessary radiation from a scan you don’t need.


When asking you about your pain and carrying out a physical examination, your doctor may find signs that suggest a specific condition. It may then be necessary for your doctor to recommend a scan to help with their diagnosis.

Radiation in back scans

Different types of medical scans involve different amounts of radiation — this is one factor to consider when deciding which scan is best for you. Talk with your health professional about the benefits and risks of medical imaging for your individual situation.

Radiation infographic comparing the ionising radiation levels of different types of medical imaging with other sources of radiation.

Explanatory notes:
  • MRI and ultrasound do not use ionising radiation.
  • Natural radiation estimates: based on annual Australian background radiation exposure of 2 mSv/year, converted to an amount per day. Natural or background radiation is the ionising radiation present in our environment.
  • Flight radiation estimates: based on average exposure from a 7-hour flight.
Find out more:
This is a general guide only and not medical advice. Radiation exposure can vary depending on individual circumstances. Information current as at November 2012. NPS excludes liability where permitted by law.