This is one of the most common questions I hear.
My short answer is: it depends, but most likely not.
Let me explain.
Oddly enough, the MRI isn’t the problem. It’s what happens after the MRI that's the problem.
The MRI itself is actually pretty awesome. You get to see what the inside of your body looks like and that can be interesting to see!
The problems start when you get the results explained to you.
“You have a tear in your rotator cuff”, “you have a bulging disc at L4-L5”, “you have a torn meniscus”, “there is a slight tear in your labrum”.
I have a tear in my rotator cuff? I have a herniated disc in my low back? I have a torn meniscus?
I don’t mean to downplay any of these issues, but without a recent trauma, does the diagnosis matter? In most cases I would argue not and here's why.
If this is from a problem you’ve been dealing with for over a few months, these results can have a nocebo (negative expectation of a situation) effect. Hearing the results from your image about how you are “damaged” or “injured” like this, can play a seriously negative role in how well you’re able to recover.
We have a rule at The Movement Schopp: You don’t have a bad (insert body part here), it’s just temporarily problematic. Our job is to find the reason it is problematic, then solve the problem for good.
Let me ask you a question. Do you think the mind is a powerful thing?
I have never heard anyone tell me they didn’t think it was, so let’s go through this scenario.
Imagine waking up every morning and telling yourself that you are going to have a bad day. What will start to happen? Every day will start to become bad before you even get the chance to have a good one. This same thing happens when you hear something like “you have a tear in your rotator cuff”, “bone on bone” in your knee, a herniated disc in your back, “your spine or hips are out of alignment”, etc.
Fortunately these results may not even be the cause of your pain. We actually see a very poor correlation between an MRI finding and the source of someone’s pain. Check out this chart below for example:
This is looking at over 3,000 people’s MRI results on their lower back. But here’s the interesting part: None of them were experiencing any pain at the time of the MRI. You can see that over ⅓ of people in their 20’s had some sort of disc degeneration or disc bulge without any pain. And the prevalence just increases each decade, but pain does not!
Maybe these “abnormal” MRI findings aren’t so out of the ordinary after all.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had people come into my office with knee pain from a “meniscus tear that they’ve developed after years of wear and tear on their knees”. When we assess their knee, it is fine. When we assess their hip, they may be relatively stiff and have some weakness. We look at their ankle and it is stiff. Then we address the issues we have found and low and behold (without even touching the knee), after a few visits their knee doesn’t hurt anymore.
It’s not magic, it's lifestyle change and improving how the body moves.