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Back Pain? Your MRI May be Showing Wrinkles on the Inside

by Athletico2 Comments

As a physical therapist, I see a lot of patients with neck and back pain. In my experience treating these patients, the majority have MRI findings that they want to discuss prior to treatment. However, it is important to take a closer look at what our MRIs may or may not be saying.

Herniated disc, bulging disc, degenerative disc… these all sound very scary. However, based on medical literature, these findings in your MRI may just be what some medical professionals refer to as “wrinkles on the inside.” What does that mean? As we age, it is normal for our bodies to change. A good example of this is on our exterior – specifically the face. We start to develop wrinkles due to aging. While these changes are visible, they do not cause pain or discomfort. The same can be said for your spine. Herniated discs, degenerative discs and bulging discs are all part of normal aging. In fact, a 2014 study looked at more than 1,300 individuals who had no back pain or pain in the legs. The findings, which can be seen in the table below, show that these issues become more prevalent as we age. For example, at least 80 percent of the individuals in the 50+ age groups had disc degeneration.1 Keep in mind that these individuals have no back pain. Therefore, when you get your MRI results and it states that you have degenerative discs, there may not be need to worry. Instead, the results may just show wrinkles on the inside.

1 AGE (yr)
Image Finding 20 30 40 50 60 70 80
Disc Degeneration 37% 52% 68% 80% 88% 93% 96%
Disc Bulge 30% 40% 50% 60% 69% 77% 84%
Disc Protrusion 29% 31% 33% 36% 38% 40% 43%

“So why do I have back pain?” This is not such a simple answer, as not all back pain is the same. An evaluation by a physical therapist is one of the most important aspects of care that you can do for your spine. Determining if you have muscular imbalances, movement pattern faults, or stiffness into specific directions are just a few of the areas of focus during a physical therapy evaluation. After the evaluation, treatment will be customized to your pain and injury to help get you back on your feet and doing the things that you love to do.

In summary, your MRI findings may be part of the normal aging process. To find out what may be causing your back pain, make sure to schedule a free assessment today to see a physical therapist at Athletico so you can get back to doing the things you love to do.

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

1. Systematic Literature Review of Imaging Features of Spinal Degeneration in Asymptomatic Populations. Brinjikji W, Luetmher PH et al. AJNR, 2014 Nov 27

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  1. Jeremy Smith

    A great question. And that was part of the point that I was trying to make. The MRI doesn’t necessarily tell the story of your back pain and why you are experiencing the symptoms that you are. Therefore, it’s very possible that you can avoid the MRI altogether and do the physical therapy. So to answer your question, if you don’t want to get an MRI and you’re not experiencing any type of red flag symptom presentation (loss of bowel and bladder, etc.), then don’t get the MRI.

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