Does Your MRI Look Scary? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Panic

Have you had an MRI or CT scan that came back with some bad news? Disc degeneration, bulges, protrusions…it can sound very serious and scary. It might sound crazy, but you can have all these things without having any pain at all. In fact, there was a recent research study that looked at MRIs of people that didn’t have back pain. The results were surprising. Many people, even those in their 20’s, showed signs of disc issues. The medical community is now realizing that these things are simply a normal part of the aging process. Some people refer to these things as “wrinkles on the inside.” Check out graphic below:

MRI back pain physical therapy

In the past, if you had back pain and an MRI that showed serious disc degeneration, the thought was that only surgery could help. Obviously physical therapy can’t change your anatomy, right? While that is technically correct, there are plenty of cases where a course of physical therapy can help to completely relieve your back pain. How can that be?

How Can Physical Therapy Help Me Avoid Surgery?

Physical therapy works in several ways. The first way we help is educating you on what your MRI means, and what it doesn’t mean. Many people think that a bulging disc means that you should avoid all activities that put pressure on your spine. While this makes sense in theory, avoiding activities often leads to more pain, not less. Secondly, your physical therapist will get you started on an exercise program to keep your strength up while also addressing your pain. To learn more about how a physical therapist can help your back pain, click this link.

Consider what Harvard Medical School says about low back pain caused by lumbar stenosis:

One type of lower back pain, called lumbar spinal stenosis, is sometimes treated with surgery. But physical therapy works just as well, and comes with fewer unwanted complications — some of them life-threatening — than surgery, according to a study published yesterday in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The results of the new Annals study suggest that people with lumbar spinal stenosis should first try a well-designed physical therapy program, says Dr. Jeffrey N. Katz, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in an editorial commenting on the study results. If physical therapy doesn’t work as well as expected, the decision of when to have surgery should be driven by the person’s preferences, says Dr. Katz, who is also the faculty editor of Back Pain: Finding solutions for your aching back, a Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publications. Reference:

This is just one example of how physical therapy can get your better without the need for surgery. As the Harvard professor recommends above, you really should try physical therapy first. Surgery isn’t a magic fix as there’s no guarantee that surgery will even get rid of your pain.

Getting An MRI First Leads To Higher Costs To You

This sounds crazy right? How would getting an MRI first end up costing you more money in the long run? Let’s follow the math. MRIs are expensive. The average cost of an MRI in the United States is over $2,600! And when you follow that up with further visits with specialists, injections, and potential surgery…it all adds up very fast. What happens when you get physical therapy first? You save money…a lot of money. We’ll leave you with this graphic:

physical therapy saves money versus MRI


If your MRI shows something scary, don’t panic. Call a physical therapist today. We can get you moving again, we are the movement experts! Click here to find a PT near you.

Sources: Research – American Journal of Neuroradiology
Definition of terms – AJNR “Nomenclature and Classification of Lumbar Disc Pathology”