Straight Talk About MRI's

  • More and more people are sent for a special imaging test called the magnetic resonance image (MRI). This miracle of physics is able to picture soft tissue like no other. The doctors of old would be astounded to see nerves, blood vessels, muscles, ligaments, and the alike in a living person. In the past, this type of physical assessment was only available at an autopsy. However, these modern marvels have their limitations.


    Ten years ago, when I saw the MRI image of my spine, I cried. I cried because I saw those two herniated disc that would change my life forever. That was my life-changing event. Looking back, I realize that my MRI did not change what needed to be done to treat my problem. I did not need surgery. I did not need injections. No matter how many MRI's were done on my spine, none of them would have changed what I needed to do and what would eventually happen.

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    I see many people who have had multiple MRI's. With the amount of MRI's performed on some people, you would think that the MRI was some type of cure. Well, an MRI is not a cure. Sometimes an MRI will point to a specific problem that requires surgical intervention for treatment. But usually in those cases, other physical exam findings are so obvious that the MRI serves just as a confirmatory study. Most of the time, the spinal MRI is not helpful because the treatment and the outcome will remain unchanged. Just like it was for me.


    What is the biggest limitation of an MRI that renders it useless at times? MRI's do not show pain. That's right, you cannot see pain. If you show me an MRI, I could not tell you whether or not the person had pain. In fact, I could not even tell you if the person was alive or dead. People assume that with a detailed picture of the spine, a cure is just around the corner. Treating pain is not like treating an infection; find a bug and get an antibiotic cure. Pain is much more complicated. Pain requires a different approach than finding a problem and fixing it. I can see potential problems on an MRI. However, for some what I see is non-painful and for others the same thing is painful. MRI's only tell me part of the story.


    Getting back to my story...


    My old MRI sits in my office, collecting dust. It changed nothing. When I look at it now, I do not cry. My discs have healed. I am sure that if I got an MRI today, the picture would be that same as it was ten years ago. Only now, I have a lot less pain.


    So, if you ask me what your MRI means, I will simply say not to cry or despair because it is only a small piece of your story, not a picture of doom.  

Published On: March 02, 2009