Some wonder if they should get an X-Ray or MRI before beginning physical therapy so they'll know what's wrong first. Others can't understand how orthopedic manual physical therapy can help them when their imaging reveals "something wrong" inside their body - a bulging disk, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, a pinched nerve, and so on.
Both lines of reasoning are logical. However, understanding the limitations of imaging may help. While the technology is quite impressive, and it certainly has its place in health care, no form of imaging (X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, etc) has the ability to correlate the picture to the pain. In other words, imaging cannot tell you why you hurt. Therefore, it is not reliable in guiding treatment. While it may be necessary in the presence of red flags or following severe trauma, it most certainly should not be used in orthopedics to diagnose pain.
According to several studies, a large percentage of pain-free people have "something wrong" in their imaging; there may be bulging or degenerative discs, arthritis, labral tears, stenosis, spondylolisthesis, degenerative joint disease, and the list goes on. [i],[ii],[iii],[iv],[v],[vi],[vii],[viii],[ix],[x],[xi],[xii]
A study by Nakashima et al in 2015 considered MRI findings of the necks of 1,211 volunteers. Of these volunteers, 87.6% had bulging disks. What percentage of these volunteers do you think had pain or required surgery? None. Not one of them. Zero. To qualify for this study, every volunteer had to have no neck or arm symptoms of any kind. Again, 87.6% had bulging disks; 0% had pain. Zero. None. [xiii]
Similar studies have also concluded that imaging cannot differentiate the patients who have pain from those who do not have pain. The majority of patients will have a positive finding, or "something wrong", whether they have pain or not.
Frank et al in 2015 published a systematic review on the prevalence of imaging findings suggestive of hip impingement. There were a total of 2,114 subjects. The prevalence of a cam deformity was 37%, the prevalence of hips with pincer deformity was 67%, and the prevalence of hips with labral injury was 68.1%. Guess what percentage had pain? Zero percent. [xiv]
Weber et al questioned if there is an association between radiological severity of lumbar spinal stenosis and disability, pain, or surgical outcome. The answer was simply, "no".
The study reported: "Of 202 patients included, 7 were found to have mild stenosis, 38 had moderate stenosis, 108 had severe stenosis, and 49 had extreme stenosis. The radiological severity of LSS was not linked to preoperative ODI, NRS back pain, or NRS leg pain scores. There were no differences in ODI, NRS back pain, or NRS leg pain scores after 1 year. The radiological severity of stenosis was not associated with change in ODI, NRS back pain, NRS leg pain, duration of surgery, length of hospital stay, or perioperative complication rates. Among patients who underwent decompressive surgery for LSS, radiological severity of stenosis was not associated with preoperative disability and pain, or clinical outcomes 1 year after surgery. In this patient group, the radiological severity of LSS has no clear clinical correlation and should therefore not be overemphasized in clinical decision making." [xv]
What about knee arthritis? A study by Culvenor et al in 2019 found that up to 43% of individuals 40 years of age and older have knee osteoarthritis in MRI findings - when they have no pain. [xvi]
To further elucidate the limitations of imaging, this study found marked variability in the reported interpretive findings and a high prevalence of interpretive errors in radiologists' reports of an MRI examination of the lumbar spine performed on the same patient at 10 different MRI centers over a short time period. As a result, the authors conclude that where a patient obtains his or her MRI examination and which radiologist interprets the examination may have a direct impact on radiological diagnosis, subsequent choice of treatment, and clinical outcome. [xvii]
Would you send your mechanic a photo of your engine so he can tell you why your car isn't working properly? Or would it be best to have him look at it in person, start up the engine, move things around, listen to the sounds, and see it in action? Diagnosing orthopedic presentations is similar. A thorough and comprehensive orthopedic examination - seeing the individual in action and performing a hands-on assessment - is the most valid way of examining a patient and the only way of guiding effective treatment.
But, you may still be left with a few valid questions: Why am I in pain? How can orthopedic manual physical therapy help me? Do I need to see a medical physician before I see a Doctor of Physical Therapy? Should I see a medical physician to rule out any serious problems before seeing a Doctor of Physical Therapy?
Dr. Damon Bescia is a fellowship-trained Doctor of Physical Therapy, board certified in orthopedics and sports physical therapy, who specializes in Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapy and serves Naperville and its surrounding communities by way of his Concierge Practice, providing private one-to-one orthopedic manual physical therapy for his clients. For more information, please visit https://www.napervillemanualphysicaltherapy.com.
[vi] Spielmann AL, Forster BB, Kokan P, Hawkins RH, Janzen DL. Shoulder after Rotator Cuff Repair: MR Imaging Findings in Asymptomatic Individuals—Initial Experience 1. Radiology. 1999 Dec;213(3):705-8.
[viii] Reilly P, Macleod I, Macfarlane R, Windley J, Emery RJ. Dead men and radiologists don't lie: a review of cadaveric and radiological studies of rotator cuff tear prevalence. The Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England. 2006 Mar;88(2):116-21.
[x] Munk B, Lundorf E, Jensen J. Long-term outcome of meniscal degeneration in the knee Poor association between MRI and symptoms in 45 patients followed more than 4 years. Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica. 2004 Jan 1;75(1):89-92.
[xiv] Frank, Jonathan M., et al. "Prevalence of femoroacetabular impingement imaging findings in asymptomatic volunteers: a systematic review." Arthroscopy: The Journal of Arthroscopic & Related Surgery 31.6 (2015): 1199-1204.
[xv] Weber, Clemens, et al. "Is There an Association Between Radiological Severity of Lumbar Spinal Stenosis and Disability, Pain, or Surgical Outcome?: A Multicenter Observational Study." Spine 41.2 (2016): E78-E83.
[xvi] Culvenor AG, Øiestad BE, Hart HF, Stefanik JJ, Guermazi A, Crossley KM. Prevalence of knee osteoarthritis features on magnetic resonance imaging in asymptomatic uninjured adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British journal of sports medicine. 2019 Oct 1;53(20):1268-78.
[xvii] Herzog R, Elgort DR, Flanders AE, Moley PJ. Variability in diagnostic error rates of 10 MRI centers performing lumbar spine MRI examinations on the same patient within a 3-week period. The Spine Journal. 2017 Apr 1;17(4):554-61.