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Magnetic resonance imaging for low back pain: indications and limitations
  1. N J Sheehan
  1. Correspondence to Dr N J Sheehan, Department of Rheumatology, Edith Cavell Hospital, Peterborough PE3 9GZ, UK; nick.sheehan{at}


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the preferred investigation for most spinal diseases and is increasingly requested for people with low back pain (LBP). However, determining the cause of back pain is complicated as it is often multifactorial and anatomical abnormalities are common in the spine and may not necessarily translate into clinical symptoms. Thus, national guidelines discourage the use of MRI in non-specific LBP and recommend reserving it for the investigation of severe or progressive neurological deficits or for those cases in which serious underlying pathology is suspected. It also has an acknowledged role in planning surgical management in cases of radiculopathy and spinal stenosis. This review summarises the indications for MRI in LBP and calls for improved education of patients and health professionals in the limitations of this investigation.

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