When you have back pain or related symptoms, one of the first steps your doctor might take is to order X-rays. After all, X-rays have been a standard diagnostic tool for more than a century. Even so, they don’t always provide a complete picture of what’s going on with your spine and its supporting parts. Here’s a closer look at some back issues that won’t show up clearly on a standard X-ray.
To understand why some back issues won’t show up on an X-ray, it helps to know how this type of diagnostic test actually works. A traditional X-ray works by sending radiation via electromagnetic waves through a certain part of your body. Various internal structures absorb these waves.
The calcium found in bones absorbs most of the radiation transmitted by X-rays. For this reason, bones and joints tend to show up more clearly on X-rays. Soft tissues, on the other hand, absorb less radiation, so these areas tend to be darker or less clear on X-rays.
If a spinal fracture or other type of structural problem is suspected, an X-ray will likely be ordered. This is also often the case after a car accident, hard fall, or similar type of sudden trauma that could have resulted in damage to spinal bones.
If your back pain isn’t related to trauma or didn’t come on suddenly because of a specific incident, X-rays aren’t as likely to be ordered. This is also typically the case with spine-related injuries involving:
• Strained spinal muscles
• Inflammation-related discomfort affecting spine-supporting tissues
• Other suspected soft tissue injuries around your spine
In situations like these, MRIs are more likely to be ordered. This is because, as mentioned above, soft tissues don’t X-ray well. However, MRIs are capable of clearly showing various internal parts.
Under certain circumstances, results from X-rays may contribute to misdiagnosis or overtreatment. For instance, if an X-ray is done on an older patient complaining of back issues, it may show signs of degeneration within spinal bones. However, this type of degeneration tends to occur naturally with age. Treatment might be recommended based on degeneration seen on an X-ray when it really isn’t the true source of the symptoms. To determine if X-rays are appropriate or not, it’s best to deal with back issues by:
• Scheduling an appointment to get a physical examination
• Discussing your symptoms in as much detail as possible
• Mentioning any factors that may have contributed to your back issues (e.g., poor posture and other lifestyle habits, lifting something the wrong way, etc.)
Rest assured there are many ways to accurately diagnose back issues. If your doctor or Santa Monica spine surgeon doesn’t suspect a structural issue that can be seen clearly on an X-ray, you may be directed to have other tests. In addition to MRIs, possibilities include CT scans, nerve conduction studies, and nerve blocks for diagnostic purposes.
Imaging tests can be very effective at diagnosing a wide range of spine-related issues, and they often help doctors make final decisions about recommended treatment, which may eventually include a surgical procedure such as extreme lateral interbody fusion. Santa Monica residents who are experiencing severe or prolonged pain in the back or neck should contact the spine specialists at The Spine Institute. Our cutting-edge treatment methods and pioneering physicians lead the spinal health industry, and we have decades of experience with every aspect of back pain and how to alleviate it. To schedule a consultation, call one of our friendly representatives today at 310-828-7757.