MRI for low back pain

There are many causes of low back pain, and a first line of treatment often includes a physical exam and a thorough medical history to rule out serious health risks. Although MRIs can be helpful for diagnosing low back pain, they can be used too frequently.

It might help to understand why sometimes MRIs are not necessary:

  • Usually, low back pain improves or goes away within six weeks and an MRI is not needed
  • The standard of care says that most patients with low back pain should start with treatment such as physical therapy or chiropractic care first and have an MRI only if the treatment doesn’t help
  • Finding out whether treatment helps before having an MRI is better and safer for most patients because it avoids the stress, risk and cost of doing MRIs that they may not need

If a number is high, it may mean that the facility is doing unnecessary MRIs for low back pain. For some patients with certain conditions, getting an MRI right away is appropriate care. Patients with these conditions are not included in this measure.

About This Measure

This measure tracks the percent of outpatients who complained of low back pain and were given an MRI before recommended treatments, such as physical therapy or chiropractic care. Although there is no magic number that pinpoints the standard percentage of MRIs that should be done, there is agreement that if the number is high, the facility may be doing unnecessary MRIs for low back pain.

Most Recent Available Data (Percent)
  2011
Northwestern Memorial 33
National Average 37
State Average 36
Performance Trend (Percent)
  2008 Q4 2009 2010 2011
Northwestern Memorial 29.5 30 34 33
National Average 32.7 32 37 37
State Average 33.4 33 37 36
Source:U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov
Percent of patients with low back pain who received an MRI prior to exploring other options, such as physical therapy.