I am an ice cream fanatic. If there is ice cream in my freezer, I think about it. A lot. It is always there in the back of my mind, nagging me when I walk into the kitchen or sit to watch a movie. X-ray and MRI results can be a lot like that ice cream in the freezer, continually creeping into our thoughts as we move throughout the day.
Medical images are amazing - there is no wonder we want to look inside when we have pain. It is strangely comforting to have our pain confirmed in black and white. However, once we see a picture it is hard to forget and, for joint and muscle issues, it can actually hold us back from getting better. Research shows that people with low back pain who know their imaging results have pain longer and seek more care than those with the same problems who do not.
Furthermore, images do not always match what we experience. In fact, healthy people with no pain often have images that reveal bulging and degenerated discs in the spine, rotator cuff tears in the shoulder, and arthritis in the knee. These findings reflect normal aging and do not necessarily correspond with pain. In the same way, the problems identified on the x-ray or MRI may not be the true source of pain, and treatment may be misguided.
It is good news that images don’t tell the whole story! A diagnosis such as arthritis, degenerative disc, or even the dreaded “bone-on-bone” does not mean you will always have pain. Pain may be reduced or eliminated by modifying movement patterns, strengthening around the joints, and improving mobility. Physical therapists are movement experts and can design a treatment plan to address the causes of your pain.
Imaging is indispensable to rule out or diagnose serious conditions such as fractures, pressure on the spinal cord, or disease. Talk to your health care provider about the benefits and drawbacks of having an x-ray or MRI, and ask if the results will change your course of care. If you are going to try physical therapy or other conservative treatment first, then imaging may not be necessary, and could delay your recovery process.
If you already have had an x-ray or MRI, don’t let your results define you and prevent you from healing. However, if you are having joint and muscle pain, sometimes the wise choice is to skip the ice cream aisle altogether!
Tiffany Salido is a doctor of physical therapy and owner of The Movement Joint® , a therapeutic fitness studio offering safe exercise classes individualized for people with balance problems, joint and muscle pain, weakness, and mobility difficulties, including Parkinson’s. Find out more at themovementjoint.com.