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  • Writer's pictureJesse Lewis

Do I Need an X Ray or MRI?

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

When it comes to diagnosing pain and injuries, one of the most common tools used is an X Ray or MRI. If you’re in pain, it’s easy to think something is seriously wrong and you need to get an image to find out what the problem is. The truth is, the majority of the time, getting an image of your pain won’t actually help you get better and you probably don’t need one. Here’s why.

Imaging Doesn’t Help You Get Better Faster

Getting an X Ray or MRI can show a really pretty picture of your body. They are amazing technologies that can give medical professionals really detailed information. The problem is, it’s been shown that all of this information doesn’t actually help you get better. Studies have actually shown that people who get MRIs for low back pain can take longer to heal and are more likely to have surgery than those who don’t.

Even if you think that you just want to know what the problem is, an image often doesn’t help. X Rays and MRIs show a lot of information, but that doesn’t always help with a diagnosis. A majority of people who have no back pain at all have findings on an MRI. And a large percentage of people who are in pain will have no findings at all on an MRI. So, even if you are in pain and get an MRI,it doesn’t mean that what your doctor sees on the image is helpful to finding the problem.

Imaging is Expensive

MRIs can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Even with insurance, the cost can be very high. Studies have shown that, on average, people who have back pain who get an MRI before getting physical therapy spend an extra $4,793 during their recovery and take longer to get better. 

We just showed you how imaging doesn’t help you get better. Why waste money on tests that won’t help?

Even Physicians Give This Advice

You might be thinking “Of course you think this, you’re physical therapists!”. While that may be true, the advice from physicians themselves is the same. Choosing Wisely is a great resource for any health consumer to get advice about what to do with their health. Their recommendation on MRIs for low back pain is the same as we’ve given you. 

When You Should Consider Imaging

There are times where getting an X Ray or MRI can be important. This is typically to rule out a very serious medical condition. Some cases where you may need to have imaging:

  • Trauma

  • Fever in addition to your pain

  • Weight loss that you can’t explain

  • Numbness or tingling in both legs

  • History of Cancer

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

  • Unexplained weakness in your legs

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