If I could tell every patient one thing before they step foot in our clinic it would be this: you are more than your MRI.
We see countless patients who undergo MRIs for low back or neck pain before beginning physical therapy, and the vast majority feel that as long as they’ve got their disc bulge they’ll always have their neck or back pain. Unfortunately, this is one of the most outdated and dangerous medical myths out there.
A not-so-inspiring history in Healthcare
As a child with asthma in the late 1800s, future president Teddy Roosevelt was told by doctors the best way to cure his asthma was by “smoking cigars, and drinking coffee and whiskey.” (Side note: that didn’t work, but vigorous exercise did)
Just a few decades ago cardiologist used to prescribe bed rest for patients recovering from heart attacks. We now have these patients do the exact opposite and participate in cardiac rehabilitation activities to prolong life.
Are you sensing a trend here? Thanks to recent research, I’m pretty sure our grandkids will be amazed (and scared) at how many of us “got surgery just because our MRI showed a disc bulge” as opposed to exercising the muscles and changing our habits to decrease our pain.
The exciting truth of today’s medicine
A 2015 study out of Japan took 1211 healthy, pain-free subjects, aged 20-70, and examined MRIs of their necks. 86.7% of the pain-free subjects had a disc bulge on their MRI. To take it one step further, 75.6% of subjects in their 20s had a disc bulge. It is actually statistically more normal for you to have a disc bulge. If you’re reading this and you don’t have a herniated disc, you are actually abnormal! Not surprisingly, the older the pain-free subject, the more intense the disc bulge (but again, no pain). 5% of the pain-free subjects were even diagnosed with “spinal cord compression” on their MRI.
Great news! But I have pain, so now what?
I understand how awful back and neck pain can be. It’s the most commonly treated ailment in PT. All I want to tell you is DO NOT WORRY. You are normal. Your spine is stable. You can, and will recover. Do not let an image, a surgeon, or anyone else let you think you are permanently disabled as long as you have a jelly donut oozing out of your spine. Pain does not equal tissue damage. Tissue damage does not equal pain. Do not let the fear of something control your life. You probably had that disc bulge long before you had your pain, so why bother aggressively treating something that isn’t even the cause of your symptoms?
Talk to your physician, consult with a physical therapist, and remember to breathe: you’re more than your MRI. You’re a well-functioning human being who is made to adapt and live life to the fullest.
Advance your knowledge.
Advance your health.
Advance your life.
Cole Racich, PT, DPT, OCS
Doctor of Physical Therapy
Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist