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Research shows MRI’s not reliable for back pain

One of the most popular questions and concerns I get from clients is whether or not they need an MRI for their back or neck problem. When you have persistent pain that won’t go away, or shooting pain or numbness down your arm or leg, it’s scary. It makes sense to get a look inside with an MRI – right?

Not necessarily.

Here’s the problem. 

MRI’s are an amazing technological advancement that will literally show you everything that is going on in your spine.  But what we now know from research is that all those findings on an MRI rarely correlate with what’s actually causing your pain. One notable study was the Lancet series – three published papers that investigated how MRI findings related to the treatment of back pain.  Martin Underwood, MD, co-author of the Lancet series, and professor at Warwick Medical School, is quoted in The Guardian saying: “If you get into the business of treating disc degeneration because it has shown up on an MRI, the likelihood is that, in most of those people, it is not contributing to their back pain.”

Let me explain.

When it comes to neck and back problems, what most people don’t realize is that 70-80% of all spine and musculoskeletal problems are what we call “mechanical” in nature.  That means that your problem has to do with the way you move, bad postural habits learned over the years, or muscular and joint imbalances like weakness and poor flexibility. Many of these mechanical “wear and tear” problems don’t show up until your 40’s, 50’s or 60’s – which coincidentally is also the time that things like disc degeneration show up on an MRI. Disc degeneration and arthritis are normal parts of aging, but they often get blamed for problems they don’t actually cause. The best way to figure out a movement problem is with… well… movement! Not an MRI.

But how do you know that it’s a mechanical problem and not something more serious?

The easiest way to find out is to ask a physical therapist who specializes in the spine, and specifically in mechanical neck and back pain.  But one sign you can easily recognize on your own is to take note of how your pain behaves. Does your pain come and go? Do you have good days and bad days? Can you change positions and influence your pain? When your pain is variable, it’s the best sign that your neck or back problem is “mechanical” in nature and due to a movement dysfunction. And that also means you don’t need surgery or any kind of procedure to fix it! In fact, a procedure or surgery could leave you feeling worse off than before.

So what’s the big deal about getting an MRI?  Isn’t it good just to be extra-cautious?

In theory – yes.  But here’s what actually happens.  MRI’s are super powerful and amazing tools.  Because of this, they see everything – including normal age-related changes like I mentioned just a moment ago. They also pick up things like bulging discs.

Research has also shown that around 60-70% of the population walk around with bulging discs and have no symptoms. Why?

Because a bulging disc only gives you trouble if you are moving or positioning yourself in an unbalanced way.

If an MRI picks this up, the news is often more devastating than it needs to be and the typical advice is to get an injection or surgery.  Neither of these procedures will fix your movement problem. And what typically happens is the bulge comes back, or appears somewhere else. This is why being “extra-cautious”, and over-prescribing MRI’s when it comes to back and neck pain, is not a good idea. The outcome is usually that people end up dealing with invasive procedures and surgeries they didn’t even need.  

If you’ve had a bad accident, fall, or trauma – then an MRI is a good idea.  But if you are dealing with chronic, long-standing aches and pains that have come and gone over the years and have recently gotten worse – there is a 70-80% chance that it is a movement problem that has finally caught up to you.  It’s best to see a movement expert for this. We know how to tell if the issue is something more serious. We can also send you to a doctor right away if necessary. But when you automatically assume that you need an MRI first, you end up spending a lot of money (the average cost of an MRI is $150,000, and you have to pay a portion of this), and the likelihood of getting prescribed an unnecessary surgery or procedure is much higher.

If this story sounds all too familiar, or you’ve been told that you must get an MRI for your neck or back problem – feel free to reach out to us and we can help you sort through fact vs fiction.  You could also come to our next “Ask the PT Night” on October 23rd and ask your questions then!

How you actually CAN recover from chronic back pain

There’s nothing more discouraging than being in pain and feeling that there’s no way out of it. Back pain is such a common issue, and unfortunately, many people hold onto the mistaken belief that if you have a “bad back” you’re stuck with it for life. Not true!!

It is totally possible to recover from chronic back pain and return to the activities you used to love.

Great news, right? Let’s talk HOW. 

First of all, keep moving.

There are people in healthcare who will tell you to just avoid anything that irritates your back and accept that you can’t be as active as you once were. But what if basically everything triggers back pain? What if your job requires you to be on your feet or you simply want to tie your own shoes or pick up your grandkids? You don’t have to resign yourself to sedentary days spent popping ibuprofen every four hours and missing out on life. Don’t listen to the people who tell you to avoid movement — because in fact, the solution is the exact opposite. Consistent, correct movement heals your body and keeps it from shutting down. If you’re suffering from back pain, it may be a sign that your movement habits are off. You could benefit from working with a specialist physical therapist to retrain your body in how to move properly throughout your day, thus eliminating unnecessary stress on your spine.  

Along the same lines, make sure you educate yourself.

We offer a FREE workshop at our Portsmouth office every month to answer questions from our community, and our next topic is back pain and sciatica! You may feel like surgery and medication are the only options out there for recovery, but in reality they are just two of the less effective strategies for treating back pain. One of our clients, Sean, was dealing with multiple herniated discs and spoke with us on this exact topic. 

“I was considering back surgery until I found CJ Physical Therapy. I walked out of 

therapy with such relief that the thought of surgery was no longer an option. Therapy 

worked so much better than the steroid injection just a few months earlier, that it gave 

me hope of actually being able to feel like I did before the injury a year earlier.”

Nobody wants to get surgery, but if you haven’t been told about any noninvasive therapeutic routes to remedy your pain, surgery may seem like the only option. But time and time again, we have clients come to us with severe back pain and injuries that are often prescribed surgery — and time and time again, they have FULLY recovered through an individually customized program of physical therapy

If you’re dealing with chronic back pain, don’t be afraid to reach out.

We understand if you’re not yet ready to commit to PT — that’s why we offer FREE Discovery Sessions for potential clients. This 30 minute session is a chance for you to speak with one of our specialists and determine for yourself if we’re the best people to help you. It’s a completely free, no-obligation appointment that will give you all the information you need to make the BEST decision for YOUR health — whether that’s working with us or not! 

Why Rest Might Be the WORST Advice for Your Back Pain

The majority of the people who come through our doors are seeking relief from back pain. Unfortunately, many of them have been told -or have simply assumed- that the best way to recover from their pain is to ice and lie down – and use their back muscles as little as possible. They’ve been advised to rest, relax, and limit their movement until the pain goes away.

The problem with this model for treatment is that it goes against everything we know about the basic principles of joint and tissue healing. Our modern health research suggests that early movement is actually the BEST way to head off chronic back pain! Of course, if you’ve suffered a trauma like a car accident or a major fall, you should absolutely go get checked out by a medical professional and follow their advice based on your injuries. But if you are dealing with a chronically aching back or general soreness, stiffness, and pain, it turns out that movement is actually the best course of action!

Of course, not ALL types of movement and exercise are safe or beneficial when you’ve hurt your back…

That’s where physical therapy comes in! A physical therapist is able to identify specific movements that actually work through and relieve that pain, based on your individual condition. We call these initial exercises “first aid movements” – and they are especially helpful because you can use them any time you might tweak your back in the future! Knowing the specific movements that can help your back muscles relax and work fluidly with the rest of your body again can be a lifesaver if you work a physical job or rely on your ability to be active and mobile every day. And NOT knowing these movements can prolong your back injury and give it a better chance of coming back… often much sooner than you’d like.

If you’re experiencing acute back pain, of course it doesn’t make sense to continue with all of your activities as usual if they are just exacerbating your symptoms. But there is a middle ground between overdoing it and completely stopping the movement that your body craves. Talk to a physical therapist who specializes in back pain so they can help you figure out which movement is the safest and best for a quick and early recovery from back pain.

If you’re dealing with back pain right now and want to start learning how you can help yourself through movement (instead of pills) right away, check out our FREE report right here!

Do You Really Need an MRI?

Do you really need an MRI for that?

This is probably the number one question we get from clients  – especially those who suffer from back or neck pain.  Believe me, I get it! When you have pain that won’t go away, and it’s shooting down your arm or leg, often causing numbness and tingling – it’s scary! Why wouldn’t you want an MRI?  An MRI tells you everything and then you know exactly what to do to fix the problem, right?

Not necessarily….

Don’t get me wrong – MRI’s are an amazing advancement in medical technology.

MRIs can easily detect abnormalities in your brain and spinal cord. They can find tumors, cysts and other abnormal growths in various parts of your body. They can even detect certain heart problems and liver disease.  When you don’t know exactly what’s wrong, but you are showing signs that something is not right, an MRI is an amazing tool to help doctors detect the source of the problem.

The problem isn’t with MRI’s – they do their job magnificently.  The problem is with the way they are being used and prescribed.

Let me explain.

When it comes to neck and back problems, for example, what most people don’t realize is that 70-80% of all spine and musculoskeletal problems are what we call “mechanical” in nature.  That means that your problem has to do with the way you move, bad postural habits learned over the years, or muscular and joint imbalances like weakness and poor flexibility. Many of these mechanical “wear and tear” problems don’t show up until your 40’s, 50’s or 60’s – because it takes a while for bad movement patterns or bad postural habits to take their toll.  The best way to figure out a movement problem is with… well… movement!

But how do you know that it’s a mechanical problem and not something more serious?

The easiest way to find out is to ask a physical therapist (we’ll get to that later). But the most common sign is that the problem comes and goes.  Some days you feel great, and then other days you’ll be experiencing severe pain that interferes with your routine and activities.  When the pain comes and goes like that, it is usually NOT due to something serious.  A tumor, or a growth, or a broken bone doesn’t go away. If you feel the pain or discomfort constantly and nothing – not even medication – changes your symptoms very much, that’s an indicator that you should see a doctor and may need an MRI.  But remember what I said – 70-80% of all musculoskeletal problems are mechanical in nature and NOT the result of a significant injury or dangerous growth. To sum it all up – MRIs are not needed as often as they are prescribed.

So what’s the big deal about getting an MRI?  Isn’t it good just to be extra-cautious?

In theory – yes.  But here’s what actually happens.  MRI’s are super powerful and amazing tools.  Because of this, they see everything – including normal age-related changes, such as arthritis, stenosis, degeneration of joints, and even bulging discs. These typical and often unrelated imperfections show up in the MRI and are frequently blamed for the movement problem.

So back to our original question:  Do I really need an MRI?

If you’ve had a bad accident, fall, or trauma – then you’ll want to seek immediate medical attention and an MRI is probably a good idea. But if you are dealing with chronic, long-standing aches and pains that have come and gone over the years and have recently gotten worse – there is a 70-80% chance that it is a movement problem that has finally caught up to you.  It’s best to see a movement expert for this.  A professional and specially trained movement expert (like a specialist physical therapist) knows how to tell if the issue is NOT a movement problem and can send you to a doctor if necessary.  But when you automatically assume that you need an MRI first, you end up spending a lot of money (the average cost of an MRI is $150,000 and you have to pay a portion of this), and often get prescribed unnecessary surgery or procedures for those normal effects of aging that show up in the MRI and get blamed for your problem.

If this story sounds all too familiar, or you’ve been told that you have to get an MRI, get in touch!  We are a specialized physical therapy practice that is well-known for helping people with this exact dilemma and we know how to tell if you need an MRI or not.

Or – download our FREE guide to back pain, written by Dr. Carrie Jose, Portsmouth’s leading back pain specialist and physical therapist. This guide contains her BEST tips – the ones she gives to clients – that will help you get rid of back pain WITHOUT things like pain pills, procedures, and of course MRI’s.

Surgeons in surgery

Surgery versus PT: What You Need to Know

“I have to get surgery for my torn meniscus. I’m going to be out of commission for a while.”

“My back problems have gotten so bad that my doctor says I need surgery to repair the herniated disk.”

“The MRI doesn’t look so good. Hopefully surgery will be a quick fix.”

Sound familiar? Most of us know someone who has been told that they needed surgery for a knee or back issue – or have received that disheartening news ourselves. A herniated disk is one of the most prevalent back problems in adults, and is often treated with lumbar discectomy as the first option. The goal of this surgery is to remove the herniated portion of the disc from the patient’s back, releasing pressure on surrounding nerves and muscles. The goal is for the patient to be able to live without pain post-surgery, but this process usually involves lots of medication and prolonged periods of rest. Another common injury that frequently leads to surgery is a meniscus tear. Your meniscus stabilizes and cushions the knee joint. A tear would be viewed easily on an MRI, which can cause many doctors to immediately prescribe surgery. Following that type of surgery, you would probably spend about two weeks with your leg completely immobilized. Then you would be introduced to a rehabilitation plan that included physical therapy – not to recover from the original injury to your knee, but to recover from the surgery that supposedly fixed it.

Surgery, in the right circumstances, can be extremely beneficial. But unfortunately, it is over-prescribed and often unnecessary, especially for individuals with back and knee pain. Seeing a herniated disc or torn meniscus on the MRI screen may trigger an automatic prescription of surgery and medication- but these “quick fixes” may not be your safest or most helpful options. In fact, MRIs can produce false positives and lead to invasive surgeries for specific injuries that didn’t even exist in the first place. MRIs are a useful tool, but their readings should always be taken with a grain of salt. When given the opportunity, your body will do its best to heal itself. Why not try careful, guided exercise and strength-building before you submit to incisions and long, medicated recoveries?

This is where physical therapy comes in. Consider working with a specialist physical therapist to address your specific injury or pain- someone who doesn’t just prescribe exercise and passive modalities, but genuinely wants to help you recover in a natural and low-risk manner. A specialist physical therapist will carefully listen to your history, analyze your symptoms, come up with a customized plan of action, and problem-solve WITH you versus trying to solve the problem FOR you. One of the primary goals of our practice is to use guided, natural movement to help your body recover to full strength and health based on your own individual needs. Pilates-based rehabilitation is also a uniquely tailored approach to recovery that can make a huge difference. Most knee, back, and other injuries occur because the surrounding muscles are too weak to support those joints and systems properly. You may think that your regular exercise and stretching is enough, but working specific muscle groups can leave others underdeveloped and makes your body unbalanced as a whole. Pilates is a full body workout that starts from your core and balances you both mentally and physically! It won’t create further damage to any injuries because it’s so low impact, and working with a professional will allow you to customize your session to your own individual needs.

Do you live in the Seacoast area and want to learn more about why surgery shouldn’t be your first – let alone ONLY – option for recovery? Click here to get in touch, ask questions, and schedule an appointment. If you’re struggling with back pain, you can even download our FREE report on five easy ways to get rid of back pain WITHOUT surgery! And don’t forget to browse our selection of Pilates classes located right here in Portsmouth.