Back pain is one of the most common muscle and joint injuries in Australia. It effects 70-90% of the population and it can be very debilitating. As a result scans, such as XRay, CT and MRI, are common accompaniments when patients present to their physiotherapy appointment.
But what do scans tell me about your back pain?
Unfortunately, they do not give us much information
Excluding inflammatory conditions and red flags, scans will help specifically diagnose only 15% of low back pain cases. The rest are classified as “non specific low back pain”.
Research shows that “findings” on scans, such as disc bulges and arthritis, have a very poor correlation with a patient’s clinical presentation of low back pain.
For example, have you had bad back pain but your doctor has told you that your MRI scan has found nothing significant? The opposite situation is also equally as common!
On MRI scan, 30% of asymptomatic 20 year olds have disc bugles and this increases to 70% when you are 60+ years!
What this means is that even though your MRI scan shows you have a disc bulge, this is unrelated to why you may be experiencing your pain.
Interestingly, research is finding that scans for low back pain can slow down the speed of recovery by 80% and can even increase pain intensity. This is largely due to the fear that patients experience when getting a scan and the stress of being diagnosed with pathologies that do not match their symptoms.
Next time you experience low back pain, remember MRI, CT and XRay results, gives us limited information about diagnosis of non inflammatory low back pain and can even prolong your recovery.
A good physiotherapist or doctor is skilled to assess and treat your symptoms based on your history and a thorough clinical assessment and get you better without imaging.