Low back pain is America’s No. 1 nonfatal health problem. An MRI, but also a CT scan, can tell a doctor a lot about what’s going on in one’s lower back.

The question though, is, which is better for diagnosing low back pain: an MRI or a CT scan?

For sure, from the patient’s point of view, the MRI sounds a lot better because it doesn’t emit the radiation that a CT scan does.

On the other hand, those with claustrophobia would rather undergo the CT scan than be “inside a tube.”

Low Back Pain: MRI vs. CT Scan

“The best test to obtain when looking at the spine is an MRI” rather than the CT scan, says Dr. Michael Perry, MD, member of the North American Spine Society and American College of Sports Medicine.

“These scans are the best for soft tissues, such as your spinal nerves, disc, cord and ligaments,” continues Dr. Perry. “An MRI will allow your doctor to see cord and nerve compression.”

That’s not the greatest news to those who fear enclosed spaces and don’t care about radiation.

But it’s really good news because you should be concerned about radiation, and the MRI is truly superior at imaging the causes of low back pain.

So if you’re scared of being inside a tube, remind yourself that the MRI equipment does not emit radiation, and the CT scanner does.

“When you may have a bone issue, such as a hairline fracture, spurring or arthritis, a CT scan is the best test to obtain,” says Dr. Perry.

“A CT scan is preferable if you have a pacemaker, defibrillator or morphine pump. When you have one of these implanted devices, an MRI scan is contraindicated because of the MRI’s ability to interfere with the functions of these devices.”

If you’re scheduled for an MRI due so low back pain, bring good earplugs with you, as this machine produces loud knocking noises throughout the procedure.

Dr. Perry is chief medical director and co-founder of USA Spine Care & Orthopedics, and is frequently sought out for his minimally invasive spine surgery expertise.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  


Top image: Freepik.com shayne_ch13