X-rays vs. MRIs: Do I really need x-rays?

Note: This is the first post in a three-part series discussing the use of x-rays and MRI’s in an orthopaedic sports medicine practice. There seems to be a good deal of confusion among the general public and physicians as well about when to order x-rays and/or an MRI. I expect that this series and the underlying premise (x-rays are very helpful and should be routinely ordered, while MRI’s are utilized far too frequently) will not be a universally accepted opinion. I would like for the reader to understand the basic concept of each test in order to understand why their physician orders tests to evaluate sports injuries.

One of the questions I’ve frequently get in the office when I’m evaluating a patient for a new sports injuries is whether or not I need to order x-rays. To answer that I need to explain why many people don’t feel like they are necessary. As you may or may not know, x-rays just show bones. They don’t show soft tissue structures like the tendons, ligaments, meniscus in the knee, muscles, cartilage, etc. Many people correctly assume that their injuries are soft tissue in nature, such as a rotator cuff tear, ligament tear, or meniscus tear. While they may be right, we often request that patients have x-rays taken either during or prior to their orthopaedic office visit. Sometimes patients question the need for x-rays as they don’t feel that there is a broken bone and therefore would have x-rays that would not show anything abnormal. Unfortunately, x-rays are necessary to the orthopaedic surgeon for making the correct diagnosis.

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X-rays are important for at least three reasons. First, there may be findings on the x-rays that may make more advanced study such as an MRI unnecessary. One of the best examples I can give of that is obtaining knee x-rays when evaluating for a possible tear of the ACL. While it’s true that the anterior cruciate ligament is only seen on an MRI and not on an x-ray, secondary bony findings can be seen. For instance, if there’s a small piece of bone pulled off the lateral tibial plateau (the top of the shin bone towards the outside of the knee), that finding implies that the ACL is torn and very likely makes an MRI unnecessary.

Another reason that we order x-rays is that they occasionally show findings that we weren’t expecting but that are important. Without sounding too alarmist, I can count numerous examples both from my practice and other colleague’s examples where tumors and other serious findings were found on x-rays when these were not the expected findings. For instance, a high-school female athlete could present for evaluation of a snapping sensation in the front of her hip. This would likely be a tendon snapping across the front of the hip and likely of no significance. Despite the fact that I would not expect the x-rays to show any pathology because a tendon does not show up on an x-ray, I would order them to make sure there were no other findings. As I said earlier, I can unfortunately imagine a scenario where she could have a lesion in the femur at the hip joint, necessitating referral to an orthopaedic oncologist. The x-rays hopefully would help to catch it early, potentially preventing a much more serious problem.

Joint space narrowing
Note the bone-on-bone joint space narrowing of the left knee.

Finally, x-rays can show us the status of the joint involved. For instance, in people with meniscal tears, especially adult athletes, it can be helpful to know if there are ny coinciding degenerative changes in the knee. The x-rays might show joint space narrowing and bone spurs that would imply that there are advanced degenerative changes that might affect not only the diagnosis but treatment outcome.

If there’s ever a question of whether or not x-rays are necessary, you should always ask either the office staff or the doctor himself to determine what studies are necessary and important.

Read all three part of this series.
X-rays vs. MRI’s, Part 2 of 3: Do I need an MRI?
X-rays vs. MRI’s, Part 3 of 3: Are primary-care providers ordering too many MRI’s?

46 Responses to X-rays vs. MRIs: Do I really need x-rays?

  1. I had a serious fall August 1, 2013 my fall was documented and 12 days later I was in my Joint Replacement Drs. office. I had falling from against the wall and fell on my left side,ie., L-Hip, L-Leg, L-Shouldler and hit my the side of my face as well. I iced constantly daily to relieve swelling, there was some discoloration on my L-arm and hip and slight red redness on L-side of my face. I was given an X-ray that clearly showed a long crack on my L-Hip my doctor than did a split screen with X-rays he had taken approx. 2001/2002 the area at that time was just a clouded area. the new X-ray clearly showed a long crack. I was terrified I already have a total R-Hip Replacement, Total R-Hip Replacement, a Uni-Compartment L-Knee Replacement. The same day I was given my X-rays I was immediately given an MRI which did not show the long crack I had just seen however the MRI did show some Fibroid turmors (I am grateful for this) I am totally confused. My doctor now says there is evidence of some arthritic changes. Before I went to MRI I did cry and tell my surgeon that I emotionally did not feel that I could go through another Hip Replalcement at this time and he told me that he did not necessarily want to do one either, I was relieved. Since the hospital is next door to his office he told me that if the MRI picked up the the fracture(crack he/I both saw) to stay at the hospital and wait for him….the MRI did not pick up the long fracture and I left with the typed results of no fracture and have not heard from him since. Before I left his office to go to MRI he did tell me to stay on moderate bed rest, which I have until I saw my pain specialist and he advised me to put my walker in front of me as I sit on the bed and pull myself up a couple times a day and continue with my hot showers which always help me/joints. On 2/18//2011 I was going down
    steps in my home when I felt a severe stabing on my right side and I immediately fell butt first on the 4th step the intensity of fall that hard threw me against the wrought iron portion of the left rail and my Left arm went through the wrought iron bars but I kept falling with my arm still stuck in the rail I landed on the second step but my L-arm was still pinned above my head my son was able to jump over my head to the landing at the bottom of the steps to release my arm. My fingers immediately began to swell and 5 hours later my entire arm had turned rainbow colors black, red, blue in a few areas we began to ice and several hours later I was in my surgeons office having a sever torn rotar cuff tear and muscle tears I fell on this arm again on 8/1/2013…it is still soar. I am confused why did we see the crack in my L-Hip and the MRI did not pick up?

    • I’m sorry. As it says in many places in my blog, I cannot offer specific advice since I am not involved in your care. And without seeing the studies, I can’t offer any explanations or answers to your questions. Your surgeon should be able to answer those questions, though.

      • Hi , i had low back pain , dr prdered spinal mri + lumbosacral x ray
        M just ciourious if wasnt mri enough? Is xray sometimes better than xray? I did both tests n nothing revealed! Ill really appreciate your answer dear dr

  2. Three years ago I had an MRI of my knee because my doctor suspected a meniscus tear. The finding were that I had severe arthritis (cysts, bone spurs, severely worn cartilage etc.). Fast forward to today I am experiencing life altering knee issues. My orthopedic ordered x-Rays before he would see me. The report findings from my x-Rays show I have “mild” tricompartmental arthritis. How is this possible? I know MRIs show more but these findings have me baffled. Shouldn’t an X-ray show severe arthritis too. I am quite certain I did not get better in the last 3 years and I am aware that osteoarthritis is a degenerative progressive disease.
    Thanks for any insight you can offer.

    • I can’t say. Yes, generally osteoarthritis radiographic changes do not improve. It is possible that x-rays taken in different ways, such as standing vs lying down, could appear differently.

  3. I fell on my kneecap, causing a great deal of swelling, bruising and pain in that area. I went to the ER and had an X-ray. It showed no fracture but they put me in a knee immobilizer because of the fall history and physical exam. If the x-ray is clear, then nothing is wrong…right? This could just be a soft tissue injury?

    • Negative x-rays almost always mean the patient has no fracture. It does not necessarily rule out a soft tissue injury or ligament, tendon, cartilage, or other structural injury.

  4. i fell over a year ago xray should factured hip got a mri showed nothing, a month later had another xray showed fractured hip ct showed nothing, now a year on i am still in pain cant walk or sit for long please help

  5. Do I need to repeat knee xrays? It’s June 2015 and I had last one done on March 2014. I have R.A. and osteoarthritis.

  6. I recently injured my left ankle while running, and the back of my heel and under my ankle are purple and swollen. Something in the ankle are popped the other day and sent me to my knees only to feel somewhat better later in the day. It has been swollen since Monday and I dont want to spend money going to various doctors…in this type of situation do you think it would be wise to do an x-ray as opposed to going straight to an MRI?

    • Generally I think an x-ray earlier on can be very helpful to diagnosing a number of foot and ankle injuries after an exercise injury.

  7. Hi
    I had a fall on 3 week’s before,3 stitches was there in my knee. .but later discovered a small scratch.but I limb while walking. .nothing is there in x-ray do I hv to take mri. .do my ligament is injured. .

  8. I had arthroscopic surgery a year and a half ago on my left knee. Everything went well and was back at playing soccer with no problems, until most recently. I wonder if its because I play for 6 different soccer teams that I’m experiencing knee pain again. Regardless, I have a followup with my sports medicine doctor for my ankles and wanted to thank you for this article because its helped me to determine if I should go see my family doctor to ask for an xray requisition in order to have the images ready for my sports medicine doctor next week. Thanks Dr. Geier for taking the time to write this article to help us patients better understand the process.

  9. Hi. I got injured during basket ball and I cant really bend my knee. I can walk on it with minor pain. However, any involvement in bending my knee hurts. For example going down or upstairs. I dont want to have an MRI because they are really expensive and I was wondering what would you recommend me to do.( I jumped up high and with the person next to me, I put all the weight on my left leg and as the person came down too, he put his weight as well causing some bad pain. The Majority of the pain when i bend it, is on my knee. I have a feeling i tore my miniscus but i’m not sure. Plz help)

  10. Hello, My husband is in the army & about three years ago he was running and his knee gave out on him while doing a 6 mile run. He still to this day has knee pain & his knee will give out and lock up sometimes. He has had a x-ray and MRI. The results both have came back negative. Is there anything we can do to find out the issue that is going on?

  11. Hello, I fell 3weeks ago and I still can’t walk without support because of pains in my knee. I I have hyper extension on the leg as a result of polio when I was 2. I was placed on declofenac which I stopped using 5 days ago because I thought it was taking to long. Please is it okay to be on declofenac for a month, how will it take before I can walk by myself, could there be more to my injury, is it possible that the peculiarity of my leg is responsible for the delay in my healing, or is there something my doctor is missing???
    It feels like my knee can’t support my weight, I only feel pains when trying to walk even without medication in 5 days
    Pls, what could the problem be

  12. Hi,
    I had a bad fall on a broken pavement and landed on my ankle which resulted in me not being able to weight bare for a couple of weeks, it significantly swelled for several months with little use. I took some physio which midly helped to get it mobile again. I decided to pursue a claim due to my problems with it. I was fobbed off for quite awhile and I waseventually sent for an MRI on my ankle 18 months after injury, by this point, I still have mild to moderate pain at times and consistently take anti inflammatories. My MRI said I had thickening to ligament and I’ll definition to another. Would this scan being 18 months later show the severity of my fall at the time. I. E if there was a complete tear, would it show 18 months later or would the result be less visible as it may have healed in that time. Also would you say this was a 2nd or 3rd degree sprain?
    21 months in, my ankle is still slightly unstable at times, hurts when pressure is put on it ( ie if the cat sits on it) or I over compensate a certain way?

    Thanks for your help.


  13. I understand the reasoning behind the x-rays being done first. I’ve a suspected rotator cuff tear but I cannot have an MRI because of metal in my body from two other surgeries. What can an orthopedist order for a defitive diagnosis if you cannot have an MRI?

  14. Hello, just wondering why specific MRI’S can only be performed in the day and not a night appointment?

    • You would have to ask the radiologists. They might not have techs to operate the machines at night at your facility.

  15. If my xray, that i took two weeks ago, say that i have no fractures, why would my mri, that i took the other say tht i have a fracture? How can that be?

  16. Been having pains in my right kneecap for four months. Seems bigger than my right knee. My knee cracks about 2/3 times a day. Hurts when walking up and down the stairs the most. It’s also started to feel hot on a night. Had a X-ray today, said they think it’s soft tissue and have to wait to see my doctor next week. What will happen now?

  17. I had a finger injury 4 days ago, i am slowing getting some ROM back but not the first knuckle. They want to do tendon repair but i am not convinced i need it without a MRI. Should i have the MRI? Or am i wrong?

  18. Hi
    I suffer with back pain all day every day 20 years ago i was in a 60 mph RTA since then I have had constant pain which as got worse over the years . I had a mri scan done but got told nothing shown up to why I suffer with pain . Would an xray pick any thing up

  19. Hi I run about five mils. a day but one particular day my knee went out and I fell to the ground went to doctor he ordered not one but two MRI’s and my primary care did a x-ray in his office with me laying down showed nothing but my knee is in excruciating pain it locks up pops plus stays swollen my knee continue to goes out a lot. I can not bear any weight down too much on it. He’s tried injection they don’t help!! Please help I am in so much pain. What do I do with mri showing nothing?!?! I ran track played basketball, softball, gymnastics in high school therefore I was very active in high school and college now that I am older I’m still very active but this injury will not let me be active please help!!!!!

  20. I had a R total shoulder replacement in June 2016. My Dr had taken an x-ray prior to my replacement which showed my humerus bone to be normal. It has been almost 4 mts since the replacement and dispite ongoing PT to improve range of motion and eliminate pain in my shoulder and bicep area, there has been little progress.
    My Dr was confused by my pain in the bicep area stating this was not a normal area of continued complaints of pain and ordered an x-ray. He returned quickly to show me my x-ray prior to the TSR, and pointed out my normal humorous bone. He then showed me the x-ray just taken and pointed which appeared to be a long growth along the humerus bone. He seemed baffled by this and said he was ordering a MRI.
    When I asked if I could have an MRI he said yes but the metal may affect clear results and then said he was also ordering a cat scan.
    My question is; should I be concerned? And, should I have both the MRI and the Cat Scan? The growth? Was obvious to me but could it just be calcium build-up or something from the TSR? Thank you!

  21. I had knee pain since I was 10. I was wondering should I get a X-ray for it? Is it bad to have your knee cap off to the side?…

  22. My friend said that I all ready dislocated my knee cap but don’t recall it dislocating it. But I have a lot of pain in my left knee. Please help me.

    What should I do?

  23. I recently had a left knee arthroscopy done that cut away the torn part of a complex meniscus tear as well as some arthritic debris. I am told and believe that it went well. Luckily I have a very well recommended surgeon who did it.

    I have had knee issues on both knees back and forth for at least 5 years prior. Having had used sleeves, and sometimes braces that wrap around the knees when playing basketball (basically my main source of exercise). I also work 12 hour shifts averaging 8hr on my feet for the last 15 years, as well as every job I have ever had prior was on my feet as well. I am 40 years old.
    In recent years, there have been plenty of times where I had to wear the braces on one or both of the knees to be able to handle my job duties.

    I feel as though I likely have the same issues in my right knee, but at a prior stage. For the most part as time went on, I would say that I could not say which knee was worse. If a moment came where I felt like I “tweaked” something, I would take a break from basketball between 1 to 3weeks depending on how it felt.

    Obviously the left started up much more often in recent times, and in conjunction with added stairs and climbing .. it led to pain that made it impossible to my job etc … from when it acted up to finally getting the mri done was likely 5 months or so.

    I am wondering, what the odds are that my right knee is likely to have the same …..
    There have been times where some pain was felt with HIGH similarities to the LEFT knee but at earlier stages in my opinion. The tweaking of my right knee is not constant but has happened much moreso in the run up to my right knee getting worse and then waiting for surgery and rehabbing some.

    Due to insurance issues in America today, they won’t let me get it addressed until my rehab is done for the right. I know you will say they will do an exam, then x-ray, then possibly mri.

    My situation currently is complicated more due to the fact that I need to look for other work.

    I am wondering your thoughts on any likelihood of the same being found on my other knee.
    Or basically you may say that you can’t answer that fully, and I get it.

    But, if it were to be the same issue found (at least similar) … If it did not cause pain per se, how long can something like that last before needing to be addressed? As well as, is it best to address it BEFORE it gets that bad or should a person wait to get that treated until absolutely necessary?

    Any thoughts, would be appreciated.

  24. Good afternoon Dr Geier , after two physio sessions I’m referred back to my gp regarding catching and general weakness that was in my right knee a possible tear , but now my left knee is also catching and feeling weak probably due to the load compensating the load from the right knee. I’m sure xrays will show patella tracking disorder or bone spurs but the gp was adamant on MRI .. Regards Richard
    Nb; I honestly feel they should xray both knees first then consider MRI if they cannot see any degenerative change .

  25. I am an ICU nurse working 12 hrs 3x/ week. In 2011, my left heel was hurting pretty bad. Saw a podiatrist,X-rays were normal and was given foot shoe insert and night splint. The heel pain eventually went away.
    Last year, I started playing golf and the heel pain came back. I kept playing golf, walking and the pain got really worst. Saw another podiatrist and diagnosed with plantar fasciitis. Still in pretty bad pain despite, Physical Therapy, high dose NSAID. I had steroid shot ,and was pain free for 10 days only. I had chiropractic tx. Then I discovered Tumeric..it’s the only one that really keeps my pain under control.but if I don’t take tumeric, I am hurting and my calf and heel feel really tight. Would MRI give answer why My foot feels tight without Tumeric? Thanks

  26. I have chronic pain inmy wrist and fingers – been scanned and exrayed nothing showed up so carpals tunnel has been ruled out . Can you suggest what next as I cannot stand the pain .

  27. A question on if one has already had an MRI for a knee issue, but not had an xray, would I have missed anything by not doing the xray? This is for a teenager whose MRI didn’t show any miniscus tears, but more of ‘runner’s knee’ and osgood schlatter disease. I’m wondering if an MRI shows everything an xray does and more?

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david-headshot I am an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.

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