How Do They Know What Is Wrong Without An MRI?
This is a fairly common question in physical therapy. Patients with lower back, leg, neck, and arm pain know the test they need is an MRI. They have friends and relatives that tell them they should have an MRI. They are concerned that something is being overlooked and that the pictures from the MRI will make treatment more beneficial. I have some research information on the limitations of a spinal MRI.
In 1994, the *New England Journal of Medicine published a study on physician evaluation of lumbar spine MRIs. The MRIs of 98 asymptomatic individuals –-no pain, feelin’ good people, were found to have disc abnormalities (82% of the MRIs).
-52% had a bulged disc at one level
-27% had a disc protrusion
-1% had a disc extrusion
-38% had an abnormality at more than one disc
Since that publication, several other studies have backed up these results. Bulged, protruding, and extruded lumbar discs are a fairly common finding on a lumbar MRI. Changes in our lumbar discs are probably no different than the wrinkles on your face or the gray in your hair. Changes in a disc’s shape is not a indicator of pain problems
Another **MRI study of athletes revealed spondylolysis (vertebral fractures) are fairly common, yet less than 50% of the athletes with these fractures ever report any episode of lower back pain. It appears that lumbar spine fractures do not always produce pain.
In my years in the physical therapy clinic, I have received the MRI reports of many neck and lower back pain patient’s spines that show disc protrusions and foraminal stenosis on one side of the spine but the patient has all of his or her symptoms on the opposite side. I have treated patients with severe lower back pain and completely normal spinal MRIs.
MRI research has demonstrated that “abnormalities” in our spines are fairly common and difficult to accurately link to any specific pain problem. We do know that once a patient has an MRI, they are far more likely to progress to ***surgery. Please read, The Myth of Accuracy in Diagnosis, by Dr. Ron Fudala. In physical therapy, the resolution of a spinal pain problem starts with a history and thorough physical evaluation. Imaging tests are a small part of the “big picture” and often provide nothing but confusion.
*Jensen MC et al. Magnetic resonance imaging of the lumbar spine in people with and without back pain, New Engl J Med. Jul 14
**Soler T, Calderon C. The prevalence of spondylolysis in the Spanish elite athlete. Am J Sports Med, 2000 Jan – Feb.
***Lurie JD, Birkmeyer NJ, Weinstein JN. Rates of advanced spinal imaging and spine surgery. Spine 2003;28:616 –20.
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
In the summer of 1968, the Detroit Tigers were on a tear. They were headed for an American League pennant and a heart-stopping three game deficit. World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. On August 22 of that season, a young pitcher for the Chicago White Sox named Tommy John decided to brush back the lead off hitter for the Tigers, shortstop Dick McAuliffe. After some discussion as to the intent of his throws, Mr. McAuliffe rearranged Mr. John’s left shoulder ligaments in a basebrawl that sent Mr. John to the disabled list and Mr. McAuliffe to a five game suspension—and a two hundred and fifty dollar fine. As a ten year old Tiger fan, I can recall getting in trouble reenacting the McAuliffe vs. John fight with my younger brothers.