Imaging strategies for low-back pain: systematic review and meta-analysis.Lancet. 2009 Feb 07; 373(9662):463-72.Lct
Some clinicians do lumbar imaging routinely or in the absence of historical or clinical features suggestive of serious low-back problems. We investigated the effects of routine, immediate lumbar imaging versus usual clinical care without immediate imaging on clinical outcomes in patients with low-back pain and no indication of serious underlying conditions.
We analysed randomised controlled trials that compared immediate lumbar imaging (radiography, MRI, or CT) versus usual clinical care without immediate imaging for low-back pain. These trials reported pain or function (primary outcomes), quality of life, mental health, overall patient-reported improvement (based on various scales), and patient satisfaction in care received. Six trials (n=1804) met inclusion criteria. Study quality was assessed by two independent reviewers with criteria adapted from the Cochrane Back Review Group. Meta-analyses were done with a random effects model.
We did not record significant differences between immediate lumbar imaging and usual care without immediate imaging for primary outcomes at either short-term (up to 3 months, standardised mean difference 0.19, 95% CI -0.01 to 0.39 for pain and 0.11, -0.29 to 0.50 for function, negative values favour routine imaging) or long-term (6-12 months, -0.04, -0.15 to 0.07 for pain and 0.01, -0.17 to 0.19 for function) follow-up. Other outcomes did not differ significantly. Trial quality, use of different imaging methods, and duration of low-back pain did not affect the results, but analyses were limited by small numbers of trials. Results are most applicable to acute or subacute low-back pain assessed in primary-care settings.
Lumbar imaging for low-back pain without indications of serious underlying conditions does not improve clinical outcomes. Therefore, clinicians should refrain from routine, immediate lumbar imaging in patients with acute or subacute low-back pain and without features suggesting a serious underlying condition.