X-rays of the Spine, Neck, or Back

By Sara M. Foster, RN, MPH

(Cervical, Thoracic, Lumbar, Sacral, or Coccygeal X-ray Studies)

Procedure overview

What are X-rays of the spine, neck, or back?

X-rays use invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film. Standard X-rays are performed for many reasons, including diagnosing tumors or bone injuries.

X-rays are made by using external radiation to produce images of the body, its organs, and other internal structures for diagnostic purposes. X-rays pass through body tissues onto specially-treated plates (similar to camera film) and a "negative" type picture is made (the more solid a structure is, the whiter it appears on the film). Instead of film, X-rays may also be made by using computers and digital media.

When the body undergoes X-rays, different parts of the body allow varying amounts of the x-ray beams to pass through. Images are produced in degrees of light and dark, depending on the amount of x-rays that penetrate the tissues. The soft tissues in the body (such as blood, skin, fat, and muscle) allow most of the X-ray to pass through and appear dark gray on the film. A bone or a tumor, which is denser than the soft tissues, allows few of the X-rays to pass through and appears white on the X-ray. At a break in a bone, the x-ray beam passes through the broken area and appears as a dark line in the white bone.

X-rays of the spine may be performed to evaluate any area of the spine (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, or coccygeal). Other related procedures that may be used to diagnose spine, back, or neck problems include myelography (myelogram), computed tomography (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or bone scans. Please see these procedures for additional information.

Anatomy of the spine

The spinal column is made up of 33 vertebrae that are separated by spongy disks and classified into distinct areas:

  • The cervical area consists of seven vertebrae in the neck.

  • The thoracic area consists of 12 vertebrae in the chest area.

  • The lumbar area consists of five vertebrae in the lower back area.

  • The sacrum has five small, fused vertebrae.

  • The four coccygeal vertebrae fuse to form one bone, called the coccyx or tailbone.

The spinal cord, a major part of the central nervous system, is located in the vertebral canal and reaches from the base of the skull to the upper part of the lower back. The spinal cord is surrounded by the bones of the spine and a sac containing cerebrospinal fluid. The spinal cord carries sense and movement signals to and from the brain and controls many reflexes.

Reasons for the procedure

X-rays of the spine, neck, or back may be performed to diagnose back or neck pain, fractures or broken bones, arthritis, spondylolisthesis (the dislocation or slipping of one vertebrae over the one below it), degeneration of the disks, tumors, abnormalities in the alignment of the spine such as kyphosis or scoliosis, or congenital abnormalities.

There may be other reasons for your physician to recommend an X-ray of the spine, neck, or back.

Risks of the procedure

You may want to ask your physician about the amount of radiation used during the procedure and the risks related to your particular situation. It is a good idea to keep a record of your past history of radiation exposure, such as previous scans and other types of X-rays, so that you can inform your physician. Risks associated with radiation exposure may be related to the cumulative number of x-ray examinations and/or treatments over a long period of time.

If you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, you should notify your physician. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects. If it is necessary for you to have a spinal X-ray, special precautions will be made to minimize the radiation exposure to the fetus.

There may be other risks depending on your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your physician prior to the procedure.

Before the procedure

  • Your physician will explain the procedure to you and offer you the opportunity to ask questions that you might have about the procedure.

  • Generally, no prior preparation, such as fasting or sedation, is required.

  • Notify the radiologic technologist if you are pregnant or suspect you may be pregnant.

  • Notify the radiologic technologist if you have had a recent barium x-ray procedure, as this may interfere with obtaining an optimal x-ray exposure of the lower back area.

  • Based on your medical condition, your physician may request other specific preparation.



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