Updated 22 September 2015

CT scan, lumbar spine

CT scan of the lumbar spine is a CT scan of the lower back.


Alternate names
CAT scan, computerised tomography, scan

What is CT scan (lumbar spine)?
CT scan of the lumbar spine is a CT scan of the lower back. A CT scan is an imaging modality which uses special X-ray equipment to produce multiple pictures of the inside of the body. These are then joined together by a computer to produce cross-sectional views of the area being studied, in this instance, the back. The images are then examined on a computer monitor, or printed.

The CT scanner is a large machine with a tunnel, in the centre. A moveable table slides into and out of this tunnel. In the centre of the machine, the X-ray tube and electronic X-ray detectors are located opposite each other on a ring which rotates around you, measuring the amount of radiation being absorbed throughout your body. A special computer programme processes this information to create two-dimensional cross-sectional slices of your body, which are then displayed on a monitor.

Common uses
Any instance where injury to the back is suspected by your doctor, or demonstrated on lower back -rays, for example motor vehicle accidents, contact sport injuries or falls. A CT scan gives detailed pictures of the anatomy of the lower back bones which will help in identifying small bony or ligament injuries.

How should I prepare?
You will be given a gown to wear during the examination, but wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes just in case. Metal objects like jewellery and belts may affect the CT images and should be left at home or removed prior to your exam, as they will affect the CT images. Women should always inform their doctor or the radiographer if there is any possibility that they may be pregnant.

How is the procedure performed?
The radiographer will position you on the CT examination table. You will usually be lying flat on your back. Straps and pillows will be used to help you maintain the correct position and to hold still during the exam. Next, the table will move quickly through the scanner to determine the correct starting position for the scans. Then, the table will move slowly through the machine as the actual CT scan is being performed. With modern scanners the examination time for the back CT will be approximately a minute or less.

If you are claustrophobic or restless, you may find a CT exam to be stressful, and might be given a sedative. You will hear only slight buzzing, clicking and whirring sounds as the CT scanner revolves around you during the imaging process.

You will be alone in the exam room during the CT scan, however, the technologist will be able to see, hear and speak with you at all times. With paediatric patients, a parent may be allowed in the room, but will be required to wear a lead apron to prevent radiation exposure.

Cancer due to radiation is always a risk, but the radiation from a CT is less than a normal person receives from background radiation (cosmic rays from atmosphere) The benefit far outweighs the risks.

Risk is increased for the babies of pregnant mothers, so please inform your doctor prior to the examination if you may be pregnant.

Repeated examinations on children should be avoided. Whenever possible shielding of gonads to protect from radiation is advised.

Obese people might not fit on the scanner.

Details of the spinal cord, muscle and ligaments are not clearly defined on CT and a MRI study might be required. A CT scan is also not an appropriate investigation for investigating back pain due to disc problems and an MRI is indicated in these situations.


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