Imaging is important in the evaluation of patients with degenerative disease and infectious processes. There are numerous conditions that can manifest as low back pain (LBP) or neck pain in a patient, and in many cases, the cause may be multifactorial. Clinical history and physical examination are key components in the evaluation of such patients; however, physical examination has variable sensitivity and specificity. Although studies have demonstrated that uncomplicated acute LBP and/or radiculopathy are self-limited conditions that do not warrant any imaging, neuroimaging can provide clear anatomic delineation of potential causes of the patient’s clinical presentation. Various professional organizations have recommendations for imaging of LBP, which generally agree that an imaging study is not indicated for patients with uncomplicated LBP or radiculopathy without a red flag (eg, neurological deficit such as major weakness or numbness in lower extremities, bowel or bladder dysfunction, saddle anesthesia, fever, history of cancer, intravenous drug use, immunosuppression, trauma, or worsening symptoms). Different imaging modalities have a complementary role in the diagnosis of pathologies affecting the spine. In this review, we discuss the standard nomenclature for lumbar disk pathology and the utility of various clinical imaging techniques in the evaluation of LBP/neck pain for potential neurosurgical management. The imaging appearance of spinal infections and potential mimics also is reviewed. Finally, we discuss advanced neuroradiological techniques that offer greater microstructural and functional information.
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