MRI Scans & Lower Back Pain
Lower back pain is a common complaint seen by almost every primary care doctor in the United States. So common in fact that 80% of the population will experience at least one episode of significant low back pain in their life. Many will experience recurrent episodes of lower back pains. Of those patients, one third will have some degree of leg pain in one or both legs. Back pain and most cases of associated leg pain do not originate from lumbar (lower back) spinal disc problems. There are many pain fiber bearing structures in the lower back including muscle, tendons, ligaments, vertebral joints and bone itself. The good news is that over 97% of all low back pain problems can be treated without surgery. Low back surgery is the most commonly overly performed surgical procedure in the United States and all too frequently the results are poor and even worse, makes the patient’s condition (back pain) more severe.
In the vast majority of patients, a careful history and detailed physical exam is the basis for developing a comprehensive, conservative treatment plan. Most patients show significant back muscle spasm with tenderness. Some will have exquisite tenderness in the sacroiliac joint where the tail bone meets the hip bone – a condition known as sacroiliitis. Piriformis Syndrome can cause low back pain and leg pain, but there is no spine involvement in this condition. The patient’s neurological exam is usually normal – it is uncommon to find clinical evidence of lumbar spinal nerve root compression (“pinched nerve”). In any clinical setting however, non-surgical treatment is indicated. Even in individuals who have evidence of a disc herniated, on exam, need conservative therapy – physical therapy, massage and anti-inflammatory medication. The natural history of disc herniation is to heal without the need for surgery or other invasive procedures such as epidural spine injections. A specifically designed course of hands on physical therapy combined with neuromuscular therapy in combination with self administered back stretching exercises will result in favorable outcomes the majority of the time While not clinically needed, many patients undergo CT or MRI scanning to look for the cause of their low back pain. This is where the road splits on the proper decision to use appropriate conservative therapy or improper decision to go to with an invasive route such as spinal injections or worse, surgery. Studies have shown that epidural steroid injections are no better than placebo. Other studies have shown that the outcome of back pain patients treated surgically is no better than those treated with best medical therapy. Narcotics should be avoided as they are habit-forming and do nothing to clear up the pain.
For patients that do get MRI studies, it is not uncommon to find spine MRI abnormalities. The important fact is that these abnormal MRI findings do not necessarily explain the pain that that individual is experiencing. To account for an individual’s back pain or sciatica (leg pain), the MRI findings must correlate exactly with the patient’s symptoms and neurological exam to have clinical significance. MRI studies of normal individuals without back pain or sciatica have been done. The results have shown that approximately 55% had bulging discs at one or more levels, 28% had disc herniation on the MRI scans. More than 70% of the MRI scans showed abnormalities and yet the patients had no symptoms! These MRI scans were done on patients who never had any back or leg pain – 70% of the MRIs were “abnormal.” The conclusion that just because the MRI scan shows “something”, does not mean that the findings are the cause of any given patient’s back or leg pain.
With conservative treatment and patient cooperation to do the back exercises, most patients have significant relief with clearing of their pain within 4-6 weeks. It is then important that patients continue to do their back exercises on a regular basis, as part of their daily exercise routine. Physical body reconditioning and core strengthening will also help a great deal. Back surgery (or neck surgery) can almost always be avoided. If you have back or neck pain that is troubling you, contact Dr. Kassicieh now for treatment.