Spinal Scans Explained

Have you had a scan on your back and confused what it all means?

If you have back or neck pain you may have had a scan of your back and be wanting to better understand what the results mean. You’re not alone. Spinal X-rays, CT scans, and MRI reports use terminology that is unfamiliar to most people and can sound intimidating and leave you feeling like something is wrong, even if the results are completely normal. 


When you get a scan, the image is interpreted by a doctor or radiologist (a doctor that specialises in interpreting imaging). They write a report commenting on each spinal level in question which will look something like this: 

This report is typically what is given to patients to explain their results, but what does it mean?


Stenosis: narrowing of the joint space. Just because the joint space is narrowed, does not always mean the nerves are compromised.


Degeneration: degenerative changes are often seen in the spine                                                             in the form of:

“loss of disc height”

“plate osteophytes” (small bone bumps) 

“sclerosis” (thickened bone)

“spondylosis” (medical term for age-related changes in the spine, like grey hairs or wrinkles).


Pars interarticularis, facet, lamina, pedicle, etc are all just anatomical parts of the vertebrae themselves


Around 1 in 3 Australians will experience back pain at some point in their lives (Aus Institute of Health and Wellness, 2019). Of these people, only 1-2% will have a serious or systemic pathology (cancer, fracture, inflammatory disorder, or infection), 5-10% will have significant neurological compromise (cord compression, cauda equina syndrome, sciatica related to a disc prolapse, or symptomatic spondylolisthesis), and 90% have what is termed “non-specific low back pain” which can be influenced by many factors such as minor ligamentous sprains, muscle tension, fear of movement, abnormal movement, stress, sleep, diet, etc.


To demonstrate, here are some of the imaging findings in normal, pain-free spines:


In fact, the CT report above is from a patient with a completely healthy back, whose pain was eased completely following a cardiac procedure to address the plaques in their arteries.


If you are experiencing back pain, speak with a health professional who can help rule out any serious pathologies, address factors that may be contributing, and get you on track to controlling your back pain.