Scans for the back help identify whether structural damage is causing or exacerbating pain. Knowing is, of course, better than not knowing, so I would always go for a scan. But what scan is best for you? And what are the pros and cons to scans?

What scans do
A scan can show nothing even though you may be experiencing excruciating pain, but it can rule out structural damage so you can begin looking at other factors. If a scan does show evidence of what is causing your pain this can provide relief. It also helps the specialists, therapists and rehab practitioners tailor your recovery plan more effectively. The important thing to remember is that whatever the scan shows, it is just information. It is the decisions and actions you take from learning this information that will form your recovery plan. The most common scans used for back pain are x-rays and MRIs.

An x-ray can tell you if there is anything wrong with your bones. An x-ray will show up breaks, fractures, bony change like arthritis or bone growths called spurs. What is can be really useful for in terms of potential causes of back pain is showing loss of disc height. Structural damage to discs as well as ageing can cause the discs to reduce in height. This results in your vertebrae (bones that make up the spine) sitting closer together. If the cause of reduced disc height is not known it may be better to opt for an MRI to gain a more comprehensive picture of what is going on.
Pros:  cost effective, reduced wait time for scan if any
Cons:  restricted information, small dose of radiation

MRI scans
An MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging) can show you bones, muscles, connective tissue, nerves, discs, arteries and all other structures in the body. It takes a series of images at very small slice increments and then puts it all together to create a complete picture. Often with an MRI scan you get several slices to view which enables consultants to ‘look through’ structures beyond the surface.  It gives you a comprehensive view of everything in the area of pain.
Pros:  more accurate diagnostic tool
Cons:  Expensive, often wait list on the NHS but can go private. Closed MRI scanners can be claustrophobic to some so ask for an open top one if available.

Getting an MRI quickly
There is often a wait list for an MRI scan on the NHS. You can get a scan quickly through private medical insurance but if this is not an option there is an alternative solution. Vista Diagnostics offer MRI scans from £200 with short notice appointments available. You could potentially get a scan within a day and results within 2 days of your scan. For more information visit  This option could eliminate much anxiety and frustration which can make your condition worse. It could also mean starting treatment earlier so you can heal and recover faster.

Whatever you opt for, you must understand the results. The radiologist who interprets the results of your scan will send you and your specialist a letter explaining what has been found. Once you know if there is any structural damage you can make a more informed decision about how to proceed with treatment.  If nothing is found that is totally ok – there are many people who suffer with back pain who do not have any structural damage. Often pain is caused by poor posture, your lifestyle habits and nutrition choices. Discuss treatment options with your specialist and ask about manual therapy and corrective exercise as well as alternative forms of pain relief like acupuncture.

Key points
The key points to take from this are firstly MRI scans are the more comprehensive scan option and secondly, whatever the scan shows it is just information that will help you make a better decision about your recovery plan. If you have structural damage like a disc prolapse or stenosis, this is okay – you are not going to die! Many many people have structural damage. The most important thing is to put a multi-disciplinary recovery and management plan in place.

BOE Magazine