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What Tests Are Used to Diagnose Back Pain?

What tests are used to diagnose back pain? This is a common question of back pain sufferers.

Doctors have many test methods at their disposal for diagnosing back pain. When evaluating a your symptoms in the office, a doctor may perform several physical examinations to help them understand your symptoms and/or make a preliminary diagnoses as to the cause of the pain. In addition to the physical examination, the doctor may request you have a diagnostic test that can provide them with an image of your spinal region.

In this article we’ll review some of the more common imaging tests used to diagnose back pain.


What tests are used to diagnose back pain? How do doctors test for back pain?A traditional x-ray will provide the doctor with a picture of the bones of the spine. X-rays are less common than some of the other imaging tests. However, x-rays may be helpful when there has been trauma (ie: car accident), the doctor suspects fractured vertebrae, osteoporosis or a tumor.


MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) tests are expensive, complicated tests that provide the doctor with 3D images of the vertabrae, discs and tissues around the spine.

An MRI can provide the doctor with a lot of information about what is going on in spinal region. However, certain patients (ie: those with pacemakers, defibrillators or certain implants) should not have an MRI performed.

CAT Scan (CT Scan)

A computed axial tomography scan (also known as a CAT Scan or CT Scan) is another test which is helpful to doctors in diagnosing back pain. This type of test uses x-rays and computers to render 3D images of the tested area. Doctors may use CAT Scans to diagnose patients who cannot have MRIs. In addition, CAT Scans can help doctors evaluate the bones of the spine and/or hardware that was implanted during a surgical procedure.

Myelogram (Myelography)

Myelogram is a type of X-ray (or CAT scan) in which a special dye is injected into the spinal canal before images are taken. The use of myelography has declined as the MRI has become more common. However, myelography is still used in certain situations such as for individuals who cannot have an MRI.

Bone Scan

A bone scan consists of injecting a radiographic marker into a patient and taking follow-up images to identify areas where there is a high turnover in bone material. A bone scan can be used by doctors to diagnose back pain as a result of  a tumor, small fracture, or infection.

EMG (Electromyogram)

EMG is a nerve test which can help doctors diagnose nerve damage and/or distinguish between nerve and muscle damage. An electromyogram is performed by placing small needles into the muscles and monitoring their reaction to electrical activity.

For more information on which tests are used to diagnose back pain, visit our page on tests and exams.



*Please Note: Information on this site or any recommended sites should not be used as a diagnosis or a substitute for talking with your doctor. Always talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment information.
Blue Distinction Center for Spine Surgery