Medical Imaging for Diagnoses: Not all it’s cracked up to be

It’s one thing for alternative health practitioners to proclaim that standard medical procedures are no good for your health, but it’s another thing to have medical doctors come right out and say it themselves.  A recent study has shown that medical imaging techniques like MRI and X-rays are totally unreliable for helping determine the cause of your aches and pains.  The New York Times has a great 3-page article on this that I’ll boil down to the bare essentials.

1. MRI’s and X-ray’s cannot tell you what’s causing your musculoskeletal pain, but many doctors either don’t realize it or won’t tell you that.

2. Doctors rely on assumptions about what is “normal” in your body and try to create that with surgery.

3. Those surgeries end up being — to everyone’s disappointment — unsuccessful.

Dr. Michael Modic — no slouch of a radiologist — works at the Neurological Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and is a recipient of the Gold Medal Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Scientific Development or Clinical Use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging.  Based on studies he’s done, “somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of people who climb into a scanner will have a herniated disk.”  That doesn’t mean they are in pain.  That means 20 to 25 percent of a random group of individuals, with or without any inkling of back pain will have signs that they have a herniated disk. That, according to Dr. Modic, means that a herniated disk on an x-ray or MRI cannot be reliably blamed for your pain.

Further, he says that as many as 60 percent of healthy adults with no back pain actually have signs that would make a radiologist believe they all have back pain.  So, even if you don’t have any back pain, a scan might make it look like you do!

The same issues hold true in other parts of the body as well.  Back in 2002, a study was published titled “Arthroscopic Knee Surgery No Better Than Placebo Surgery” that blew the whistle on the miracle cure to knee-pain — arthroscopic knee surgery.  That study showed that someone who had the full arthroscopic surgery to remove build-up, cartilage, etc. from the knee joint experienced the same reduction in pain as someone who had nothing but a small incision that made it look like a surgery had been performed!  The surgery was completely useless versus placebo, but it had been performed and marketed for years as an important breakthrough in treating knee problems. Doctors had been blaming all that floaty stuff in the knee for the pain, but taking it all out didn’t actually do anything to solve the problem.  Unfortunately, those expensive surgeries, according to one doctor, did hasten the need for total knee replacement surgeries for a lot of patients.

As Dr. Nelda Wray, a senior research scientist at the Methodist Institute for Technology in Houston puts it, “[doctors] see something in a scan, and [they] assume causation. But [they] have no idea of the prevalence of the abnormality in routine populations.” So she, Dr. Modic, and others like them are trying to get their colleagues to recognize that relying on images of bones to diagnose the causes of pain isn’t just bad medicine: it’s bad science.

Before you opt for surgery, consider that a nonmedical, soft-tissue therapy like Rolfing can actually change the way your body moves in ways that will address the roots of your musculoskeletal pain.  It’s non-invasive, natural, and certainly far less expensive than a $5000 surgery that’s no better than placebo!


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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