This might sound surprising to a lot of people, but MRIs are very often not needed to successfully treat your pain or problem. Being aware of this can save you valuable time and money as you try to find a solution to your problem.
Why is this true? Because there is a high percentage of “abnormal” findings (such as disc bulges/herniations, partial tears, arthritis, etc.) in people who aren’t experiencing any pain. To put it another way, MRI results can be very misleading.
Here are some MRI finding from people who are HEALTHY and PAIN-FREE:
So how does this impact my treatment?
From a physical therapist’s perspective, we don’t create a treatment plan based upon your MRI findings – otherwise we would just do the same thing for everybody who has a herniated disc, arthritis, etc. We evaluate each patient individually and address the impairments we find. The best way to put it is:
"WE DON'T TREAT SCANS, WE TREAT PEOPLE."
Ironically, an MRI Can Actually Make You Feel Worse
This one probably has you scratching your head and saying "what's the harm in getting an MRI!?" I completely understand that thought, so let me explain.
The potential harm that can come from an MRI is that it can negatively affect your outlook/prognosis and lead you down a more invasive treatment path (injections, surgery, etc.) because the doctors are just "treating" the MRI and not you. This is especially true if you got an MRI because of back or neck pain.
Many people feel “labeled” after getting an MRI, which can increase their anxiety about their pain and/or cause a heightened sense of concern. This can lead them to seek more and more medical care (testing, different doctors, etc).
And just so I'm clear, MRIs don't cause any physical harm, but the results can indirectly lead to people feeling worse (our brain doesn't like our body being labeled as having a "defect").
Insurance Companies Are Aware of This Myth Too
Health insurance companies are also aware that MRIs are overused and, many times, unnecessary. It's not totally surprising that they realized this because it saves them money as MRIs are rather expensive at ~$2000 a pop (more and more of which you are responsible for).
This is why insurance companies deny authorization for some MRI requests - they are expensive, tend to lead to more expensive tests, and don't necessary lead to improved care or better outcome. Why pay money for something that may very well be unnecessary and potentially cause you to have less favorable results!?
Next Time You Are Told You Need an MRI...
So what do you do if you're sitting in the doctor's office discussing your problem (or at least trying to discuss your problem for longer than 30 seconds before you get cut off) and the doctor says he wants to get an MRI. How do you know what questions to ask?
We've put together a simple list of questions for you to help guide your conversation with your doctor. To download the questions, click below, and we'll send them to you right away.
Info to help you move better, feel better, get back to the gymnastics and other sports you love...
Dr. Christine Walker
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