Mark Yates, Crystian B. Oliveira, James B. Galloway, Chris G. Maher

March 2020, Volume 29, Issue 3, pp 519 - 529 Review Article Read Full Article 10.1007/s00586-019-06269-7

First Online: 14 January 2020


Patients with low back pain (LBP) rarely have serious underlying pathology but frequently undergo inappropriate imaging. A range of guidelines and red flag features are utilised to characterise appropriate imaging. This scoping review explores how LBP imaging appropriateness is determined and calculated in studies of primary care practice.


This scoping review builds upon a previous meta-analysis, incorporating articles identified that were published since 2014, with an updated search to capture articles published since the original search. Electronic databases were searched, and citation lists of included papers were reviewed. Inclusion criteria were studies assessing adult LBP imaging appropriateness in a primary care setting. Twenty-three eligible studies were identified.


A range of red flag features were utilised to determine imaging appropriateness. Most studies considered appropriateness in a binary manner, by the presence of any red flag feature. Ten guidelines were referenced, with 7/23 (30%) included studies amending or not referencing any guideline. The method for calculating the proportion of inappropriate imaging varied. Ten per cent of the studies used the total number of patients presenting with LBP as the denominator, suggesting most studies overestimated the rate of inappropriate imaging, and did not capture where imaging is not performed for clinically suspicious LBP.


Greater clarity is needed on how we define and measure imaging appropriateness for LBP, which also accounts for the problem of failing to image when indicated. An internationally agreed methodology for imaging appropriateness studies would ultimately lead to an improvement in the care delivered to patients.

Graphic abstract

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