Research: MRIs are sending patients to get a spinal surgery they do not need and will not help
Ross Hauser, MD
In this article, Ross Hauser, MD explains why MRI readings may lead to INCREASED incidents of failed back surgery syndrome. After you are done reading this article, see our main page Prolotherapy for back pain for more information.
I know there will be people reading this article who will be confused by the title. My MRI says I should get a back surgery but there is research to say I shouldn’t?
Simply: When radiologists say we are doing too many inappropriate MRIs, and that research underestimates the true extent of how many inappropriate MRIs are ordered for back pain, we know there is a problem.
That is what radiologists at the Health Economics Resource Center, at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in Menlo Park, California say.(1)
Nearly one-third (31% of MRIs) were deemed inappropriate or not helpful to the patient’s condition. Did this happen to you? Or were you in the 2/3rds that were MRI appropriate?
In this research, nearly one-third (31% of MRIs) were deemed inappropriate or not helpful to the patient’s condition. But what about the other two-thirds? You must have fallen into this group, or so you think.
- We see many patients who visit us and the first thing they want to do is get an MRI to bring to the first visit. Many of these people are shocked to hear that we very rarely order one and in almost every case it is not necessary. Some of these patients get very confused, “How can there be no MRI?” In treating degenerative disc disease and spinal ligament damage, our 25+ years experience tells us that we can get the answers we need to help the patient with a consultation and physical examination, no need for an MRI. In fact, the MRI may just confuse things because all the patient can think about is bulging discs when bulging discs are not what is causing them pain. Please see my article Prolotherapy non-surgical treatment of a herniated or bulging disc, I hope you will find the information helpful in understanding what your spine is telling you and what an MRI is telling you. Listen to your spine.
This is considered “the” appropriate MRI
- In this study, most MRIs that were considered appropriate for the patient to get were those following failure of conservative care options therapy (53%).
- What are typical conservative care options?
- Pain medications
- Yoga, Pilates, low impact exercises, physical therapy
- Chiropractic care, massage
- Back braces
- What are typical conservative care options?
The reasons that these treatments offered less than hoped for results is that they do not treat the underlying cause of the patient’s back pain problem. That is spinal instability from damaged, weakened ligaments that allow the vertebrae to rotate and move out of their natural position and cause the pain related to stenosis, sciatica, and pressure on the nerves.
Please see my article for more of an explanation:
Research: “more than 50% of the patients indicated that they would undergo spine surgery based on abnormalities found on MRI, even without symptoms.” Now we have a problem.
As we will see below in cited research: When “more than 50% of the patients indicated that they would undergo spine surgery based on abnormalities found on MRI, even without symptoms,” we know that there is a problem.
The biggest problem is that spinal surgery is a standard of care that has been scrutinized for excessive failures.
- This is the medicine of chronic back pain: MRI to diagnose the problem, surgery to correct the problem.
- Problem: the diagnosis based on MRI is often wrong, as we will see in the research below.
- Problem: the surgery is correcting something that is not a pain-causing factor. If it is not broken, don’t fix it, is replaced by “It’s not broken, we will fix it anyway.”
- Problem: The surgery itself is causing more pain post-operatively. What was not broken was broken by the surgery.
- Ultimate Problem: Failed back surgery syndrome.
Where is the evidence for all this? It is all around us in the medical literature.
A 63 year old woman with lumbar radiculopathy walks into an imaging center.
In the medical publication Spine Journal, doctors at the Hospital for Special Surgery, Spreemo Quality Research Institute, and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital wrote of their observations of what happened when the sent a 63 year old women with back pain complaints to ten different imaging centers:
“In today’s health-care climate, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is often perceived as a commodity, a service where there are no meaningful differences in quality and thus an area in which patients can be advised to select a provider based on price and convenience alone.”
- In other words and more simply, you should be able to walk into any Imaging Center, get an MRI and the results should be the same everywhere.
Back to the study: “If this prevailing view is correct, then a patient should expect to receive the same radiological diagnosis regardless of which imaging center he or she visits, or which radiologist reviews the examination. Based on their extensive clinical experience, the authors believe that this assumption is not correct and that it can negatively impact patient care, outcomes, and costs.”
- In other words, the authors of this study do not believe you can walk into any Imaging Center and get the same diagnostic results. This is a big problem:
A 63 year old woman with lumbar radiculopathy walks into 10 different imaging centers – what does she get? A broad range of interpretive errors. . . patients may get a surgery they do not need, or a surgery that addresses the wrong concern.
The researchers tested their troubling hypothesis that radiologists’ reports from multiple imaging centers performing a lumbar MRI examination on the same patient over a short period of time will have (one) marked variability in interpretive findings and (two) a broad range of interpretive errors.
So they sent a 63-year-old woman with a history of low back pain and right L5 radicular symptoms to get 10 MRIs
Across all 10 study examinations, there were 49 distinct findings reported related to the presence of a distinct pathology at a specific motion segment.
Based on that one statement alone, it is easy to understand the author’s conclusion to the study:
“This study found marked variability in the reported interpretive findings and a high prevalence of interpretive errors in radiologists’ reports of an MRI examination of the lumbar spine performed on the same patient at 10 different MRI centers over a short time period.
As a result, the authors conclude that where a patient obtains his or her MRI examination and which radiologist interprets the examination may have a direct impact on radiological diagnosis, subsequent choice of treatment, and clinical outcome.”(2)
In other words, the patients may get a surgery they do not need, or a surgery that addresses the wrong concern.
MRI has little value in helping patients to cure their back pain
In a new study, university researchers in Kenya and South Africa published their findings in the online medical journal BioMed Central musculoskeletal disorders. In their findings the doctors noted:
- MRI is regularly used by clinicians in making a decision of whether to treat a patient conservatively using physiotherapy, rehabilitation and pain medication or consider surgical intervention for degenerative disc disease, or spinal stenosis.
- There is a documented trend of increasing excessive utilization and over-dependence on MRI in assessing lumbar spine disorders among clinicians.
- Based on the findings of this review, the lack of sufficient high quality scientific evidence in support or against the use of MRI, the on-going debate among experts regarding the cost, diagnostic utility and accuracy of MRI in diagnosing nerve root compression and radiculopathy, clinicians should always correlate the findings of MRI with the patients’ medical history and clinical presentation in clinical decision making.(3)
In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors questioned MRI’s usefulness as a frequently performed test during follow-ups in patients with known lumbar-disc herniation and persistent symptoms of sciatica. The association, they noted, between findings on MRI and clinical outcome is controversial, with several studies showing a high prevalence of disk herniation, ranging from 20 to 76%, in persons without any symptoms.
The doctors looked at patients who had MRI performed before treatment and after treatment in two groups. Group one had surgery and group two did not and received conservative care instead.
The two groups were divided, regardless of the treatment into two groups: 1) Favorable outcome after treatment. 2) Unfavorable outcome after treatment.
After one year they compared MRIs “before and after.”
- In 35% of patients who had a favorable treatment outcome (reduction of symptoms), MRI still showed a herniated disc.
- In 33% of patients who reported a non-favorable outcome, MRI still showed a herniated disc.
What did the doctors conclude?
- Patients with symptomatic lumbar-disc herniation at baseline who were treated with either surgery or conservative treatment and followed for 1 year, the presence of disc herniation on MRI at 1-year follow-up did not distinguish patients with a favorable clinical outcome from those with an unfavorable outcome. Even in the acute setting of sciatica, evidence for the diagnostic accuracy of MRI is not conclusive.(4)
In a 2008 study, doctors at Weill Cornell Medical College and the Methodist Hospital Houston found that nearly 1 in 3 back pain patients should not even get an MRI because it may lead to unnecessary spinal surgery.
“MRI alone may provide insufficient or inaccurate information upon which to base surgical/technical decisions in about of 30% of cases (of back pain).”(5) This research published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research shows how very little has changed in nearly a decade.
Despite this evidence, patients are lead to believe that the MRI is the final truth.
In a recent study, from Wayne State University School of Medicine in the Journal of neurosurgery. Spine, doctors found that a surprisingly high percentage of patients have misconceptions regarding their MRI diagnosis and their treatment of lumbar spondylosis (degenerative – osteoarthritic changes in the spine).
The researchers asked patients questions designed to assess patient understanding of the role of MRI imaging in the diagnosis and treatment of low-back and leg pain, and patient perception of the indications for surgical compared with conservative management.
- More than 50% of the patients indicated that they would undergo spine surgery based on abnormalities found on MRI, even without symptoms.(6)
An amazing research paper appeared in May 2015. In this medical paper, doctors wanted to know what were the 100 most influential or frequently cited studies about lumbar spinal surgery.
Many would think the most frequently cited research articles on back pain would be about spinal surgery techniques or spinal pain treatments. NO it is about positive readings on MRI in pain negative patients!
Many would think the most frequently cited articles would be about spinal surgery techniques or spinal pain treatments. NO, it is about positive readings on MRI in pain negative patients! Clearly, the medical community recognizes that spinal surgery recommendations based on MRI finding are troubling.
Here is the findings:
- The top-ranked paper–cited more than 1,000 times–was a classic 1990 study showing that many people have common spinal abnormalities on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans–despite having no back pain or other symptoms.(7)
- A 1994 study on a similar topic was the second most-cited paper, highlighting the need for a “clear correlation” of patients’ symptoms and imaging findings.(8)
The top two most cited papers were studies that questioned how to interpret an “abnormal” MRI in patients who had no pain and were written more than 23 years ago.(9) Nothing has changed since.
With this evidence, we tell many patients we don’t need an MRI
When we see a new patient with back pain, they will often ask: “Do I need to get a ‘fresh’ MRI?”
We do not advocate the use of MRI’s for diagnosing the cause of pain because the main reason surgeons perform spinal surgery is the above-mentioned findings of abnormalities on MRI scans. As stated, most MRI findings have nothing to do with why the person has pain and this is the reason for most back surgery failures.
In one study, researchers noted that more than 85% of patients seen have low back pain that cannot be attributed to a specific disease or an anatomic abnormality and it is well known that imaging of asymptomatic patients often reveals anatomic abnormalities, such as herniated discs.
- “One of the risks of routinely imaging uncomplicated acute low back pain is patient “labeling”; no evidence exists that labeling patients with low back pain with a specific anatomic diagnosis improves outcomes.”(10)
The same thing was noted by JC Andersen of the University of Tampa in his paper determining whether or not MRI should be ordered in treating athletes with back pain.
- “Available evidence indicates that immediate, routine lumbar spine imaging (MRI or CT) in patients with lower back pain and without features indicating a serious underlying condition did not improve outcomes compared with usual clinical care without immediate imaging.”(11)
Despite the fact that low back pain MRIs made the top five list of overused tests and treatments, according to the American Academy or Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians, and despite the fact that lumbar spine scans have a poor track record of connecting findings to clinical signs and symptoms, the number of scans has risen dramatically.(12)
Asking patients what hurts has significant diagnostic value
In a new study looking at ways to minimize failed back surgery, doctors suggest that “Factors such as a lack of knowledge or recognition of the common structure specific pain referral patterns, poor clinical reasoning, inappropriate referral and predilection for popular management approaches also contribute to misdiagnosis and mismanagement.”(13)
Further that doctors should broaden their approach in managing low back pain by using patient questionnaires and health quality of life surveys.
The amazing summary of this paper? Let’s ask the patient
In recent research, investigators found that talking to patients about their back pain could have significant diagnostic value. Doctors explored patient diagnosis in nerve root compression in men. Things that help doctors were answers to questions such as “pain worse in leg than in back,” and “a non-sudden onset.” (14) Things that could not be determined by an MRI.
One of the most difficult things to tell a patient with significant back pain is that the MRI may not be telling the true story. This, despite an abundance of research suggesting it is not possible to accurately predict who spinal fusion will or won’t work for, using standardizing radiological scans:
- “No subset of patients with chronic low back pain could be identified for whom spinal fusion is a predictable and effective treatment. Best evidence does not support the use of current tests for patient selection in clinical practice.”
- “Although MRI is appealing, its utility in assessing fusion remains unproven.” 
Reliance on MRI for determining surgical treatment for spinal pain has been shown to be faulty, inaccurate, and leads to unnecessary surgery. This is why it is very important that the patient seek an opinion from a doctor who performs a physical examination to determine the exact cause of pain.
In one research study, doctors said that nearly one in four patients who had a lumbar discectomy had positive scans for recurrent disc herniation following the surgery, the majority of which displayed no pain symptoms.
MRI validated disc herniation which did not cause pain or other symptoms was not associated with clinical consequences in two years following surgery. Clinically silent (patient’s not reporting) recurrent disc herniation is common after lumbar discectomy.
In other words, doctors are telling each other that when they order an MRI within the first 2 years of discectomy, they should expect that the MRI will show abnormalities that are of no consequence to the patient and that they should not rush to surgery.
At Caring Medical, we perform a physical examination of each and every patient, even those who bring in MRI or X-ray results, to determine the exact cause of pain. We then choose the best course of Prolotherapy treatment to heal the injury and rid the patient of pain. The average patient receives 3-6 treatments spaced four weeks apart. So if your doctor prescribes an MRI, take caution. Your MRI could be your Failed Back Surgery cause. A physical examination is essential in diagnosing pain.
If you have questions about back pain, get help and information from our Caring Medical Staff
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