What is a spine X-ray?

An X-ray is a test that uses radiation to produce images of the bones and organs of the body. Spine X-rays provide detailed images of the bones of the spine, and can be taken separately for the 3 main parts of the spine – cervical (neck), thoracic (mid back), and lumbar (lower back).

During an X-ray, a focused beam of radiation is passed through your body, and a black-and-white image is recorded on special film or a computer.

X-rays work because the body's tissues vary in density (thickness). Each tissue allows a different amount of radiation to pass through and expose the X-ray-sensitive film. Bones, for example, are very dense, and most of the radiation is prevented from passing through to the film. As a result, bones appear white on an X-ray. Tissues that are less dense – such as the lungs, which are filled with air – allow more of the X-rays to pass through to the film and appear on the image in shades of gray.

Why is a spine X-ray ordered?

A spine X-ray may be ordered to evaluate a back or neck injury, or to help with the diagnosis and treatment of back or neck pain. Spine X-rays can help detect:

  • Fractures (breaks)
  • Tumors (abnormal masses of cells)
  • Arthritis
  • Disc problems
  • Deformities in the curves of the spine
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
  • Infection

Who performs the test?

A radiology technologist, a skilled medical professional who is trained in X-ray procedures, will perform the test. A radiologist, a doctor who specializes in evaluating X-rays and other radiology procedures, will interpret the X-rays and report the test results to your doctor.