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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Computed Tomography (ct scan) for Back Problems

What is the test?

CT scans are pictures taken by a specialized x-ray machine. The machine circles your body and scans an area from every angle within that circle. The machine measures how much the x-ray beams change as they pass through your body. It then relays that information to a computer, which generates a collection of black-and-white pictures, each showing a slightly different "slice" or cross-section of your internal structures. A CT scan of the back may view one or more of the three areas of the spine: the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (middle back), and lumbar spine (lower back).

Doctors can use a CT scan of the spine to examine the vertebrae in the spine for fractures, arthritis, or pinching of the nerves or spinal cord (spinal stenosis). Occasionally, doctors x-ray the pelvis to help diagnose the cause of back pain.

A CT scan of the spine can be combined with a test called a "myelogram" (discussed separately) to give a clear view of the spinal cord and places where the vertebral bones might be pinching it.

From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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