Getting an MRI can be a scary experience

You may worry that it will find things like bulging discs, arthritis, spinal stenosis, and disc degeneration. You may notice those terms listed on your MRI report. More often than not, it’s not as bad as it sounds. As scary as something like a bulging disc or herniated disc may sound, there is a lot of current research indicating the prevalence of these findings in the normal population is greater than previously thought.

Recent research looked at over 3,000 individuals who had MRIs of their spine. These individuals, ages 20 to late 80s did not have any back pain. The findings of these studies are AMAZING! In individuals in their 20s, 37% of those individuals had signs of bulging discs. This means that over ONE-THIRD of people in their 20s who have NO BACK PAIN showed signs of bulging discs! Sixty percent of people in their 50s who had NO back pain had signs of bulging discs as well. This percentage jumps up to 84% for people in their 80s. Again, remember these are findings in people WITHOUT back pain. Large portions of the population show “degenerative changes” in their spine like decreased disc height, bulging discs, and disc protrusion and have NO back pain. This shows how common scary sounding findings can be on an MRI.

You are NOT your MRI

These degenerative changes shown on an MRI can be a part of the normal aging process. Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that both you and your friend Greg have MRIs done and that both of you have a bulging disc at L5-S1 (a very common MRI finding). The reality is that you could have significant low back pain but your friend Greg feels good enough to run a marathon tomorrow. Does that mean your pain is coming from that bulging disc? Does this mean you’re destined to live a life with debilitating back pain due to this bulging disc? Absolutely not! Your friend Gary has the SAME MRI finding as you and has NO low back pain.

If you’re in pain and see these findings on your MRI, don’t panic. Those findings may or may not impact how to manage your spine pain. What you need is a provider who is a movement specialist who is able to dig deeper than just the results of your MRI to find the true cause of your pain. Physical therapists are specially trained and adapted to address your issues. Come see one of the excellent back specialists at Freedom Physical Therapy Services who will take the time to evaluate your symptoms, observe your movement, take the time to figure out the root cause of your pain, and give you the hands-on treatment you need to get back to your life without pain.


Systematic Literature Review of Imaging Features of Spinal Degeneration in Asymptomatic Populations. American Journal of Neuroradiology. April 2015, 36 (4) 811-816. W. Brinjikji, P.H. Luetmer, B. Comstock, B.W. Bresnahan, L.E. Chen, R.A. Deyo, S. Halabi, J.A. Turner, A.L. Avins, K. James, J.T. Wald, D.F. Kallmes and J.G. Jarvik.