Association of early imaging for back pain with clinical outcomes in older adults

Jeffrey G. Jarvik, Laura S. Gold, Bryan A. Comstock, Patrick J. Heagerty, Sean D. Rundell, Judith A. Turner, Andrew L. Avins, Zoya Bauer, Brian W. Bresnahan, Janna L. Friedly, Kathryn James, Larry Kessler, Srdjan S. Nedeljkovic, David R. Nerenz, Xu Shi, Sean D. Sullivan, Leighton Chan, Jason M. Schwalb, Richard A. Deyo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


IMPORTANCE In contrast to the recommendations for younger adults, many guidelines allow for older adults with back pain to undergo imaging without waiting 4 to 6 weeks. However, early imagingmay precipitate interventions that do not improve outcomes. OBJECTIVE To compare function and pain at the 12-month follow-up visit among older adults who received early imaging with those who did not receive early imaging after a new primary care visit for back pain without radiculopathy. DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS Prospective cohort of 5239 patients 65 years or older with a new primary care visit for back pain (2011-2013) in 3 US health care systems.We matched controls 1:1 using propensity score matching of demographic and clinical characteristics, including diagnosis, pain severity, pain duration, functional status, and prior resource use. EXPOSURES Diagnostic imaging (plain films, computed tomography [CT], magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]) of the lumbar or thoracic spine within 6 weeks of the index visit. MAIN OUTCOME AND MEASURES Primary outcome: back or leg pain-related disability measured by the modified Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire (score range, 0-24; higher scores indicate greater disability) 12 months after enrollment. RESULTS Among the 5239 patients, 1174 had early radiographs and 349 had early MRI/CT. At 12 months, neither the early radiograph group nor the early MRI/CT group differed significantly from controls on the disability questionnaire. The mean score for patients who underwent early radiography was 8.54 vs 8.74 among the control group (difference, -0.10 [95%CI, -0.71 to 0.50]; mixed model, P = .36). The mean score for the early MRI/CT group was 9.81 vs 10.50 for the control group (difference,-0.51 [-1.62 to 0.60]; mixed model, P = .18). CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE Among older adults with a new primary care visit for back pain, early imaging was not associated with better 1-year outcomes. The value of early diagnostic imaging in older adults for back pain without radiculopathy is uncertain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1143-1153
Number of pages11
JournalJAMA - Journal of the American Medical Association
Issue number11
StatePublished - Mar 17 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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