X-rays: Traditional x-rays use low levels of radiation to project a picture onto a piece of film, while some newer x-rays use electronic imaging techniques. They are often used to view the bones and bony structures in the body.
Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI: MRI uses a strong magnetic force instead of radiation to create an image. Unlike an x-ray, which shows only bony structures, an MRI scan produces clear pictures of soft tissues, such as ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. MRIs are most useful when determining if you have a serious condition or when surgery is being considered. Serious spinal conditions are very rare. In fact, less than 2 percent of people with lower back pain have a serious condition.
Computed tomography, or CT, scan: A CT scan allows your provider to view spinal structures that cannot be seen on traditional x-rays. A CT scan produces a three-dimensional image that a computer creates from a series of two-dimensional pictures that it takes of your back. Your provider may order a CT scan to look for problems including herniated discs, tumors, or spinal stenosis.
It’s important to keep in mind that medical tests may not show the cause of your back pain. Many times, the cause of back pain is never known. Fortunately, it is not necessary to know the cause of back pain in order to recover from it.