Spinal Imaging in Primary Care
Spinal imaging can be an overused investigation in primary care and should be reserved for patients with red flags or in patients where it will potentially change management. Dr Nick Snelling (MSK lead for BNSSG CCG) has proposed the following guide:
Consider spinal imaging in the presence of red flags. Suspicion is proportional to number of these (80% of Low Back Pain will have at least one red flag).
presentation under age 20 or over 55
non-mechanical pain, night pain
History of trauma - fracture?, osteoporosis? (Consider age versus force.)
Persistent thoracic pain (mets prevalence highest in thoracic spine, lowest cervical spine)
Past History: carcinoma, (lung, prostate, thyroid, kidney, breast = mostly metastasise to the spine); steroids, HIV, IVDU, immunosuppression
unwell, weight loss, constitutional symptoms
Neurology: especially saddle anaesthesia and bowel and bladder disturbance (Cauda Equina Syndrome); marked muscle weakness, widespread / progressive neurology. (Nerve root involvement / cord compression in cervical and thoracic spine)
Prolonged morning stiffness, worse at rest, better with exercise… remember inflammatory arthritides.
If concern about caudal equina, send to A&E.
If sciatica with lower limb neurology, consider MATs referral.
Remember, osteoarthritic changes, disc narrowing, protrusions, and herniations are all a normal part of ageing, and don't necessarily correlate with symptoms or change management. Be prepared to explain to your patients in non-threatening language the above changes which are likely to be seen on most spinal imaging.
For further advice on imaging of the spine please see the Radiology Guidelines for Primary Care section.
MRI for back pain?
The following You Tube video is a useful guide to referrers and patients on appropriate use of MRI in management of back pain: