Back pain tests

Find reliable independent health and treatment information about back pain written by Australian experts. This includes resources for consumers and health professionals.

About back pain tests

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, imaging such as X-rays, MRI or CT scans are not necessary. Karen's story is a good example of how GPs diagnose and manage acute low back pain.

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.

Watch our video about acute low back pain: its likely causes, why scans are unlikely to help, and tips on effective ways to manage the pain.

Find out more

For health professionals  

Often imaging for low back pain will detect an ‘abnormality’ that is part of the normal range of anatomy rather than pathological. Low back pain is thought to affect four in five Australians at some point in their lives, but in about 85% of cases the cause is non-specific. Thus a thorough history and examination are essential prerequisites to assess for the presence of serious clinical conditions (‘red flags’) - before requesting imaging. In many cases (i.e. where there are no red flags) imaging is not necessary. Low back pain often resolves spontaneously but analgesia (with paracetamol) and normal activity (i.e. avoid bed rest) may assist this.

For your patients

Clinical information

Quality use of medical tests means choosing the right test for the patient and using it at the right time. We have compiled some of the latest evidence and guidelines on low back pain tests to help you discuss the relevance of this with your patients. A diagnostic tool is also included.

Other resources

An online tool to help in the management of acute low back pain, developed in collaboration with the George Institute.


Related information - back pain tests

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(Medical test)
12 May 2015 Low back pain: read Karen’s story to find out why X-rays are not commonly recommended for acute low back pain, what you can do, and what signs indicate you may need imaging
(Medical test)
12 May 2015 Find out when MRI is less useful for the diagnosis or management of your medical condition..
(Medical test)
27 Oct 2012 Low back pain is extremely common, but in about 85% of cases the cause is non-specific. Imaging is only useful after a thorough history and in specific cases.
(Medical test)
27 Oct 2012 Low back pain is extremely common, but in about 85% of cases the cause is non-specific. Imaging is only useful after a thorough history and in specific cases.

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