Information for Consumers - Low Back Pain (Acute)

This article tells you about acute low back pain and how it is diagnosed, including what imaging tests you may need to have.

What is acute low back pain?

Acute low back pain usually lasts for a few days to a few weeks. The pain in your lower back may range from an ache to a shooting pain down your leg. If your low back pain has lasted for more than 3 months, it is called chronic back pain.


Acute back pain is very common and in most people will usually go away in a few days. It does not normally need an x-ray or scan for diagnosis.

Your doctor may request x-rays or a scan if:

  • He/she thinks that something serious is causing your pain
  • If you have other symptoms due to compression of a nerve or the spinal cord
  • If your pain lasts several weeks and is not responding to treatment

The following are considered the red alerts for back pain:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever
  • History of cancer
  • Intravenous drug use
  • Osteoporosis or steroid use
  • Suspicion of ankylosing spondylitis
  • Age >70
  • Recent significant trauma or milder trauma in age >50
  • Compromised immune system
  • Compensation issues

Depending on these, your doctor may request an x-ray, CT, MRI or bone scan.

If an x-ray is done first, the x-ray results will show your doctor whether you need any other scans and which ones you should have.


A Radiology doctor will look at your scans and write a report for your doctor.

Further information

For more detailed information, please access InsideRadiology at:

This is a resource produced especially for consumers by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists:

A guide to gathering information that you may need for making informed decisions is published by the Consumers' Health Council of Australia at:

If you would like to look at other relevant articles, please access the following:

Or access the Diagnostic Imaging Pathways website at:

Or if you have questions or require any further information please contact your doctor.


National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Low Back Pain Fact Sheet:

Consumer participation

This information has been reviewed by representatives from the following groups:

  • Aboriginal people
  • People with disabilities
  • Seniors
  • CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse)
  • The Health Consumers Council


All feedback, comments and suggestions regarding consumer information at Diagnostic Imaging Pathways are welcome. Please direct them to the following email address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is intended as general information only. The Diagnostic Imaging Pathways team and Radiology Across Borders will not accept any liability arising from its use. The information is kept as up-to-date and accurate as possible. Please be warned that it is always subject to change.


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Date reviewed: July 2017

Date of next review: July 2019