CT Thoracic Spine - CAM 707HB


  • It is an expectation that all patients receive care/services from a licensed clinician. All appropriate supporting documentation, including recent pertinent office visit notes, laboratory data, and results of any special testing must be provided. If applicable: All prior relevant imaging results and the reason that alternative imaging cannot be performed must be included in the documentation submitted. 
  • Where a specific clinical indication is not directly addressed in this guideline, medical necessity determination will be made based on widely accepted standard of care criteria. These criteria are supported by evidence-based or peer-reviewed sources such as medical literature, societal guidelines and state/national recommendations.

+If there is a combination request* for an overlapping body part, either requested at the same time or sequentially (within the past 3 months) the results of the prior study should be:

  • Inconclusive or show a need for additional or follow up imaging evaluation OR 
  • The office notes should clearly document an indication why overlapping imaging is needed and how it will change management for the patient (the entire spinal cord and/or autonomic postganglionic chain must be assessed)

 (*Unless approvable in the combination section as noted in the guidelines)

For evaluation of neurologic deficits when Thoracic Spine MRI is contraindicated or inappropriate1,2,3

  • With any of the following new neurological deficits documented on physical exam
    • Extremity muscular weakness (and not likely caused by plexopathy, or peripheral neuropathy)4,5
    • Pathologic (e.g., Babinski, Chaddock Sign) reflexes
    • Pathologic (e.g., Babinski, Lhermitte's sign, Chaddock Sign, Hoffman’s and other upper motor neuron signs); OR abnormal deep tendon reflexes (and not likely 
    • caused by plexopathy, or peripheral neuropathy)
    • Absent/decreased sensory changes along a particular thoracic dermatome (nerve distribution): pin prick, touch, vibration, proprioception, or temperature
    • weakness (and not likely caused by plexopathy, or peripheral neuropathy)
    • Upper or lower extremity increase muscle tone/spasticity and likely localized to the thoracic spinal cord 
    • New onset bowel or bladder dysfunction (e.g., retention or incontinence) — not related to an inherent bowel or bladder process
    • Gait abnormalities (see Table 1 for more details)
  • Suspected cord compression with any neurological deficits as listed above

For evaluation of back pain with any of the following when thoracic spine MRI is contraindicated6,7,8,9

  • With new or worsening objective neurologic deficits on exam, as above
  • Failure of conservative treatment* for at least six weeks within the last six months10
  • With progression or worsening of symptoms during the course of conservative treatment*
  • With an abnormal electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction study (if performed) indicating a thoracic radiculopathy. (EMG is not recommended to determine the cause of axial lumbar, thoracic, or cervical spine pain)11 
  • Isolated back pain in pediatric population12 — conservative care not required if red flags present. Red flags that prompt imaging include any of the following: 
    • Age 5 or younger, OR
    • Constant pain, OR
    • Pain lasting > 4 weeks, OR
    • Abnormal neurologic examination, OR
    • Early morning stiffness and/or gelling, OR
    • Night pain that prevents or disrupts sleep, OR 
    • Radicular pain, OR
    • Fever or weight loss or malaise, OR
    • Postural changes (e.g., kyphosis or scoliosis), OR
    • Limp (or refusal to walk in a younger child < 5yo) 

As part of initial pre-operative/post-operative/procedural evaluation (“CT best examination to assess for hardware complication, extent of fusion and pseudoarthrosis”13,14 and MRI for cord, nerve root compression, disc pathology, or post-op infection)

If ordered by neurosurgeon or orthopedic surgeon for purposes of surgical planning. A contraindication to MRI is not required:

  • For preoperative evaluation/planning.
  • CT discogram.
  • Evaluation of post operative pseudoarthrosis after initial x-rays (CT should not be done before 6 months after surgery).
  • CSF leak highly suspected and supported by patient history and/or physical exam findings (leak (known or suspected spontaneous (idiopathic) intracranial hypotension (SIH), post lumbar puncture headache, post spinal surgery headache, orthostatic headache, rhinorrhea or otorrhea, or cerebrospinal-venous fistula —preferred exam CT myelogram).15
  • Prior to spinal cord stimulator to exclude canal stenosis if no prior imaging of the thoracic spine has been done recently and MRI is contraindicated.
  • A follow-up study may be needed to help evaluate a patient’s progress after treatment, procedure, intervention, or surgery in the last 6 months. Documentation requires a medical reason that clearly indicates why additional imaging is needed for the type and area(s) requested (routine surveillance post-op not indicated without symptoms). 
  • Surgical infection as evidenced by signs/symptoms, laboratory, or prior imaging findings.
  • New or changing neurological deficits or symptoms post-operatively13,16 — see neurological deficit section above.
  • When combo requests are submitted (i.e., MRI and CT of the spine), the office notes should clearly document the need for both studies to be done simultaneously, i.e., the need for both soft tissue and bony anatomy is required.17
    • Combination requests where both thoracic spine CT and MRI thoracic spine are both approvable (not an all-inclusive list):
      • OPLL (Ossification of posterior longitudinal ligament)
        • Most common in cervical spine (rare but more severe in thoracic spine)18
      • Pathologic or complex fractures 
      • Malignant process of spine with both bony and soft tissue involvement 
      • Clearly documented indication for bony and soft tissue abnormality where assessment will change management for the patient

For evaluation of suspected myelopathy when Thoracic Spine MRI is contraindicated:19,20,21,22,23

  • Does NOT require conservative care
  • Progressive symptoms including unsteadiness; broad-based gait; increased muscle tone; pins and needles sensation; weakness and wasting of the lower limbs; diminished sensation to light touch, temperature, proprioception, and vibration; limb hyperreflexia and pathologic reflexes; bowel and bladder dysfunction in more severe cases
  • Any of the neurological deficits as noted above

For evaluation of trauma or acute injury:24

  • Presents with any of the following neurological deficits as above
  • With progression or worsening of symptoms during the course of a trial of conservative treatment*
  • History of underlying spinal abnormalities (i.e., ankylosing spondylitis, diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis) (Both MRI and CT would be approvable)25,26,27
  • When the patient is clinically unevaluable or there are preliminary imaging findings (x-ray or CT) needing further evaluation

(“MRI and CT provide complementary information. When indicated It is appropriate to perform both examinations”)24

For evaluation of known fracture or known/new compression fractures with worsening back pain:24,28

  • To assess union of a fracture when physical examination, plain radiographs, or prior imaging suggest delayed or non-healing
  • To determine the position of fracture fragments
  • With history of malignancy (if MRI is contraindicated or cannot be performed)
  • With an associated new focal neurologic deficit as above29
  • Prior to a planned surgery/intervention or if the results of the CT will change management

CT myelogram: When MRI cannot be performed/contraindicated/surgeon preference:30,31,32,33,34

  • When signs and symptoms are inconsistent or not explained by the MRI findings 
  • Demonstration of the site of a CSF leak (known or suspected spontaneous (idiopathic) intracranial hypotension (SIH), post lumbar puncture headache, post spinal surgery headache, orthostatic headache, rhinorrhea or otorrhea, or cerebrospinal-venous fistula) 
  • Surgical planning, especially regarding to the nerve roots or evaluation of dural sac

For evaluation of tumor, cancer, or metastasis with any of the following:

(MRI is usually the preferred study- CT may be needed to further characterize solitary indeterminate lesions seen on MRI)35

  • Primary tumor
    • Initial staging primary spinal tumor36
    • Follow-up of known primary cancer of patient undergoing active treatment within the past year or as per surveillance imaging guidance for that cancer
    • Known spinal tumor with new signs or symptoms (e.g., new or increasing nontraumatic pain, physical, laboratory, and/or imaging findings)
    • With an associated new focal neurologic deficit as above29
  • Metastatic tumor
    • With evidence of metastasis on bone scan needing further clarification OR inconclusive findings on a prior imaging exam 
    • With an associated new focal neurologic deficit29
    • Known malignancy with new signs or symptoms (e.g., new or increasing nontraumatic pain, radiculopathy or neck pain that occurs at night and wakes the patient from sleep with known active cancer, physical, laboratory, and/or imaging findings) in a tumor that tends to metastasize to the spine37,38

Further evaluation of indeterminate findings on prior imaging (unless follow up is otherwise specified within the guideline):

  • For initial evaluation of an inconclusive finding on a prior imaging report that requires further clarification. When MRI cannot be performed, is contraindicated, or CT is preferred to characterize the finding.
  • One follow-up exam of a prior indeterminate MR/CT finding to ensure no suspicious interval change has occurred. (No further surveillance unless specified as highly suspicious or change was found on last follow-up exam.) (When MRI cannot be performed, is contraindicated, or CT is preferred to characterize the finding.)

Indication for combination studies for the initial pre-therapy staging of cancer, OR active monitoring for recurrence as clinically indicated, OR evaluation of suspected metastases:

  • ≤ 5 concurrent studies to include CT or MRI of any of the following areas as appropriate depending on the cancer: Neck, Abdomen, Pelvis, Chest, Brain, Cervical Spine, Thoracic Spine, or Lumbar Spine

For evaluation of known or suspected infection (osteomyelitis), abscess or inflammatory disease when Thoracic MRI is contraindicated or cannot be performed:39, 40

  • As evidenced by signs and/or symptoms, laboratory (i.e., abnormal white blood cell count, ESR and/or CRP) or prior imaging findings41
  • Follow-up imaging of infection
    • With worsening symptoms/laboratory values (i.e., white blood cell count, ESR/CRP) or radiographic findings42


  • Ankylosing Spondylitis/Spondyloarthropathies with non-diagnostic or indeterminate X-ray and appropriate rheumatology workup

For evaluation of spine abnormalities related to immune system suppression, e.g., HIV, chemotherapy, leukemia, or lymphoma when thoracic MRI is contraindicated:39

  • As evidenced by signs/symptoms, laboratory, or prior imaging findings

Other indications for a thoracic spine CT when MRI is contraindicated or cannot be performed:
(Note: See combination requests, below, for initial advanced imaging assessment and pre-operatively)

  • Tethered cord, or spinal dysraphism (known or suspected) based on preliminary imaging, neurological exam, and/or high-risk cutaneous stigmata43,44,45
  • Known Arnold-Chiari syndrome (For initial imaging (one-time initial modality assessment) see combination below)
    • Known Chiari I malformation without syrinx or hydrocephalus, follow-up imaging after initial diagnosis with new or changing signs/symptoms or exam findings consistent with spinal cord pathology46
    • Known Chiari II (Arnold-Chiari syndrome), III, or IV malformation
  • • Syrinx or syringomyelia (known or suspected)
    • With neurologic findings and/or predisposing conditions (e.g., Chiari malformation, prior trauma, neoplasm, arachnoiditis, severe spondylosis)47
    • To further characterize a suspicious abnormality seen on prior imaging
    • Known syrinx with new/worsening symptoms
  • Toe walking in a child with signs/symptoms of myelopathy localized to the Thoracic Spine
  • Suspected neuroinflammatory conditions/diseases (e.g., sarcoidosis, Behcet’s) 
    • After detailed neurological exam and appropriate initial work up


Cervical and Thoracic CT:

  • Initial evaluation of known or suspected syrinx or syringomyelia
    • With neurologic findings and/or predisposing conditions (e.g., Chiari malformation, prior trauma, neoplasm, arachnoiditis, severe spondylosis47
    • To further characterize a suspicious abnormality seen on prior imaging
    • Known syrinx with new/worsening symptom

Exception- Indications for combination studies48,49: Are approved indications as noted below and being performed in children who will need anesthesia for the procedure 

  • • Any combination of these studies for:
    • Survey/complete initial assessment of infant/child with congenital scoliosis or juvenile idiopathic scoliosis under the age of 1050,51,52 (e.g., congenital scoliosis, idiopathic scoliosis, scoliosis with vertebral anomalies)
    • In the presence of neurological deficit, progressive spinal deformity, or for preoperative planning53
    • Back pain with known vertebral anomalies (hemivertebrae, hypoplasia, agenesis, butterfly, segmentation defect, bars, or congenital wedging) in a child on preliminary imaging
    • Scoliosis with any of the following:54
      • Progressive spinal deformity; 
      • Neurologic deficit (new or unexplained);
      • Early onset;
      • Atypical curve (e.g., short segment, > 30’ kyphosis, left thoracic curve, associated organ anomalies);
      • Pre-operative planning; OR 
      • When office notes clearly document how imaging will change management
  • Arnold-Chiari malformations55,56
    • Arnold-Chiari I 
      • For evaluation of spinal abnormalities associated with initial diagnosis of Arnold-Chiari Malformation. (C/T/L spine due to association with tethered cord and syringomyelia), and initial imaging has not been completed44,50
    • Arnold-Chiari II – IV — For initial evaluation and follow-up as appropriate
      • Usually associated with open and closed spinal dysraphism, particularly meningomyelocele)
  • Tethered cord, or spinal dysraphism (known or suspected) based on preliminary imaging, neurological exam, and/or high-risk cutaneous stigmata,43,44,45  when anesthesia required for imaging57 (e.g., meningomyelocele, lipomeningomyelocele, diastematomyelia, fatty/thickened filum terminale, and other spinal cord malformations)
  • Oncological Applications (e.g., primary nervous system, metastatic)
    • Drop metastasis from brain or spine (imaging also includes brain; CT spine imaging in this scenario is usually CT myelogram) — See Overview
    • Suspected leptomeningeal carcinomatosis (LC)58 — See Overview
    • Any combination of these for spinal survey in patient with metastases 
    • Tumor evaluation and monitoring in neurocutaneous syndromes
  • CSF leak highly suspected and supported by patient history and/or physical exam findings (leak [known or suspected spontaneous (idiopathic) intracranial hypotension (SIH), post lumbar puncture headache, post spinal surgery headache, orthostatic headache, rhinorrhea or otorrhea, or cerebrospinal-venous fistula -preferred exam CT myelogram])15
  • CT myelogram when meets above guidelines and MRI is contraindicated or for surgical planning
  • Post-procedure (discogram) CT

Computed tomography is used for the evaluation, assessment of severity, and follow-up of diseases of the spine. Its use in the thoracic spine is limited, however, due to the lack of epidural fat in this part of the body. CT myelography improves the contrast severity of CT, but it is also invasive. CT may be used for conditions, e.g., degenerative changes, infection, and immune suppression, when magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is contraindicated. It may also be used in the evaluation of tumors, cancer, or metastasis in the thoracic spine, and it may be used for preoperative and post-surgical evaluations. CT obtains images from different angles and uses computer processing to show a cross-section of body tissues and organs. CT is fast and is often performed in acute settings. It provides good visualization of cortical bone. 

*Conservative Therapy — (Spine) should include a multimodality approach consisting of a combination of active and inactive components. Inactive components, such as rest, ice, heat, modified activities, medical devices, acupuncture and/or stimulators, medications, injections (epidural, facet, bursal, and/or joint, not including trigger point), and diathermy can be utilized. Active modalities may consist of physical therapy, a physician-supervised home exercise program**, regular osteopathic manipulative medicine treatments (OMT), and/or chiropractic care when considered safe and appropriate. 

**Home Exercise Program — (HEP)/Therapy — The following elements are required to meet guidelines for completion of conservative therapy9,14:

  • Information provided on exercise prescription/plan AND 
  • Follow-up with member with documentation provided regarding lack of improvement (failed) after completion of HEP (after suitable 6-week period), or inability to complete HEP due to physical reason- i.e., increased pain, inability to physically perform exercises. (Patient inconvenience or noncompliance without explanation does not constitute “inability to complete” HEP).
  • Dates and duration of failed PT, physician-supervised HEP, or chiropractic treatment should be documented in the original office notes or an addendum to the notes.

Table 1: Gait and spine imaging59,60,61,62,63,64

Gait Characteristic Work up/Imaging
Hemiparetic Spastic unilateral, circumduction Brain and/or, Cervical spine imaging based on associated symptoms
Diplegic Spastic bilateral, circumduction Brain, Cervical and Thoracic Spine imaging
Myelopathic Wide based, stiff, unsteady Cervical and/or Thoracic spine MRI based on associated symptoms
Cerebellar ataxic Broad based, clumsy, staggering, lack of coordination, usually also with limb ataxia Brain imaging see Brain MRI Guideline
Apraxic Magnetic, shuffling, difficulty initiating Brain imaging see Brain MRI Guideline
Parkinsonian Stooped, small steps, rigid, turning en bloc, decreased arm swing Brain Imaging see Brain MRI Guideline
Choreiform Irregular, jerky, involuntary movements Medication review, consider brain imaging as per movement disorder Brain MR guidelines
Sensory ataxic Cautious, stomping, worsening without visual input (i.e., + Romberg) EMG, blood work, consider spinal (cervical or thoracic cord imaging) imaging based on EMG
Neurogenic Steppage, dragging of toes
  • EMG initial testing;
  • BUT if there is a foot drop, lumbar spine MRI is appropriate without EMG
  • Pelvis MR if there is evidence of plexopathy
Vestibular Insecure, veer to one side, worse when eyes closed, vertigo Consider Brain/IAC MRI see Brain MRI Guideline

Myelopathy — Symptom severity varies, and a high index of suspicion is essential for making the proper diagnosis in early cases. Symptoms of pain and radiculopathy may not be present. The natural history of myelopathy is characterized by neurological deterioration. The most frequently encountered symptom is gait abnormality (86%), followed by increased muscular reflexes (79.1%), pathological reflexes (65.1%), paresthesia of upper limb (69.8%), and pain (67.4%).65

CT Myelogram — Myelography is the instillation of intrathecal contrast media under fluoroscopy. Patients are then imaged with CT to evaluate for spinal canal pathology. Although this technique has diminished greatly due to the advent of MRI and its non-invasiveness and superior soft-tissue contrast, myelography is still a useful technique for conventional indications, such as spinal stenosis, when MRI is contraindicated, nondiagnostic or surgeon preference (see guidelines above), brachial plexus injury in neonates, radiation therapy treatment planning, and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak.66

Back Pain with Cancer History — Bone is the third most common site of metastases after the liver and the lungs, and approximately two-thirds of all osseous metastases occur in the spine. Approximately 60% – 70% of patients with systemic cancer will have spinal metastasis. Radiographic (X-ray) examination should be performed in cases of back pain when a patient has a cancer history, but without known active cancer or a tumor that tends to metastasize to the spine. This can make a diagnosis in many cases. This may occasionally allow for selection of bone scan in lieu of MRI in some cases. When radiographs do not answer the clinical question, then MRI may be appropriate after a consideration of conservative care.

“Neoplasms causing VCF (vertebral compression fractures) include1) primary bone neoplasms, such as hemangioma (aggressive type) or giant cell tumors, and tumor-like conditions causing bony and cellular remodeling, such as aneurysmal bone cysts, or Paget’s disease (osteitis deformans); 2) primary malignant neoplasms including but not limited to multiple myeloma and lymphoma; and 3) metastatic neoplasms, including and not limited to, multiple myeloma and lymphoma, and metastatic neoplasms.”28

Most common spine metastasis involving primary metastasis originate from the following tumors in descending order: breast (21%), lung (19%), prostate (7.5%), renal (5%), 
gastrointestinal (4.5%), and thyroid (2.5%). While all tumors can seed to the spine, the cancers mentioned above metastasize to the spinal column early in the disease process.37

Drop Metastases67 — Drop metastases are intradural extramedullary spinal metastases that arise from intracranial lesions. Common examples of intracranial neoplasms that result in drop metastases include pineal tumors, ependymomas, medulloblastomas, germinomas, primitive neuroectodermal tumors (PNET), glioblastomas multiform, anaplastic astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas and less commonly choroid plexus neoplasms and teratomas.

Leptomeningeal Carcinomatosis68 — Leptomeningeal carcinomatosis is a complication of cancer in which cancerous cells spread to the membranes (meninges) that covers the brain and spinal cord. The most common solid tumors that involve the leptomeninges are breast, lung, melanoma, gastrointestinal, and primary central nervous system tumors. 

Table 2: CT and Cutaneous Stigmata69

Risk Stratification for Various Cutaneous Markers
High Risk Intermediate Risk Low Risk
  • Hypertrichosis 
  • Infantile hemangioma 
  • Atretic meningocele
  • DST
  • Subcutaneous lipoma
  • Caudal appendage
  • Segmental hemangiomas in association with LUMBAR syndrome
  • Capillary malformations (also referred to as NFS or salmon patch when pink and poorly defined or PWS when darker red and well-defined)
  • Coccygeal dimple
  • Light hair
  • Isolated café au lait spots
  • Mongolian spots
  • Hypo- and hypermelanotic macules or papules
  • Deviated or forked gluteal cleft
  • Nonmidline lesions
LUMBAR, lower body hemangioma and other cutaneous defects, urogenital abnormalities, ulcerations, myelopathy, bony defects, anorectal malformations, arterial anomalies, and renal anomalies.


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Coding Section

Codes Number Description
CPT 72128 Computed tomographic, thoracic spine, without contrast material

with contrast material


without contrast material, followed by contrast material(s) and further sections 

Procedure and diagnosis codes on Medical Policy documents are included only as a general reference tool for each policy. They may not be all-inclusive. 

This medical policy was developed through consideration of peer-reviewed medical literature generally recognized by the relevant medical community, U.S. FDA approval status, nationally accepted standards of medical practice and accepted standards of medical practice in this community, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association technology assessment program (TEC) and other nonaffiliated technology evaluation centers, reference to federal regulations, other plan medical policies, and accredited national guidelines.

"Current Procedural Terminology © American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved" 

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