Diagnostic Imaging Use for the Initial Evaluation of Low Back Pain by Primary Care Providers in the United States: 2011-2016

Jina Pakpoor, Micheal Raad, Andrew Harris, Varun Puvanesarajah, Joseph K. Canner, Rohini Nadgir, Amit Jain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Objective: High-value care guidelines from multiple medical societies recommend against imaging for the initial evaluation of low back pain in the absence of red flag symptoms. We aimed to determine the current temporal and geographic landscape of imaging ordering patterns for this indication among US primary care providers. Methods: Using a national commercial insurance claims database, we identified patients between 18 and 64 years old who presented to a primary care provider for an initial evaluation of low back pain between 2011 and 2016. Patients were identified via International Classification of Diseases codes, and the use of diagnostic imaging was identified by Current Procedural Terminology codes. Geographic regions were based on the location of patient residence. Results: Overall, 627,118 encounters met inclusion criteria. Imaging acquisitions increased over time, from 14% of encounters in 2011 to 16% in 2016 (P < .01). Radiographs represented 96% of ordered imaging, CT 2%, and MRI 3%. The likelihood of having any imaging for low back pain varied significantly by US census region and by US state (P < .01). The greatest use of imaging was in the Midwest (13.9%) and the South (18.5%), and lowest in the Northeast and West (6.2% and 13.6%). Discussion: Imaging utilization for the initial evaluation of low back pain by primary care providers has increased on a national level from 2011 to 2016, largely represented by radiographs. Significant regional variation also exists. Encouragingly, the use of advanced imaging has remained at a low level in the primary care setting (<1.0%).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1522-1527
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of the American College of Radiology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2019


  • Health services research
  • high value care
  • imaging utilization
  • low back pain
  • trends analysis.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging


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