When to get an MRI

You have back or neck pain. When should you get an MRI of your spine? 

That’s a very common question presented to me during a visit to my office.  Folks come in with complaints of neck or back pain and express concerns that their other doctors have not ordered an MRI.

The truth is you don’t normally need an MRI for most episodes of spine pain. After six weeks, the vast majority of people will get better. If you got an MRI too early, now you’ve spent a lot of money getting the MRI, and while you are now better,  there may be information on the MRI that may have adverse bearing on future issues related to disability, or claims of work or auto accident injury. 

A spine specialist may order an MRI earlier than 6 weeks from onset of pain if there are concerns for a significant problem like an infection,  a tumor, or a nerve or spinal cord compression that needs urgent surgery. 

If you can be patient, most of you will be better within 6 to 8 weeks, and can avoid the expense of an MRI.  

The more doctors understand MRIs, the more doctors realize MRIs of the spine identify many findings that may not have anything to do with your current pains. If you are already better,  then that information will not be very useful to you. 

It may show you are aging, or degenerating. That should not be a surprise as that is the process of life.  

I may be over simplifying things, but aging also causes grey hair, and wrinkles.  The spine ages by bulging the discs and spurring of the bones. As this is a gradual process, often times these findings are not the cause of any specific neck or back pain. 

The MRI is a very useful tool. I do order a lot of them, but understand that MRI should be ordered for specific situations, and may provide information that has no bearing on your current complaints.

You have back pain. When should you get an MRI of your spine? My name is Dr. John Shim, and today I want to talk about when you should get a spine MRI. That's a very common question presented to me during a visit to my office. Folks come in with complaints of neck or back pain, and expressed concerns that their other doctors have not ordered the MRI. The truth is, you don't normally need an MRI for episodes of spine pain. After six weeks, the vast majority of people will get better. If you got an MRI too early - now you spent a lot of money getting the MRI, and while you're now better, there may be information on the MRI that may have adverse bearing on future issues related to disability, or claims of work injury, or auto accident related injuries. A spinal specialist may order an MRI earlier than six weeks from onset if there are concerns for a significant problem like an infection, a tumor, or a nerve or spinal cord compression that needs urgent surgery. If you can be patient, most of you will be better within six to eight weeks, and can avoid the expense of an MRI. The more doctors understand MRIs the more doctors realize MRIs of the spine identified many things that may have nothing to do with your current complaints. If you're already better, then that information will not be very useful for you. It may show that you're aging or degenerating. That shouldn't be a surprise as that's the process of life. I may be oversimplifying things, but aging also causes things like gray hair and wrinkles. Well, in the spine it causes bulging of discs and spurring of the bones. As this is a gradual process, oftentimes, these findings are not the cause of any specific neck or back pain. The MRI is a very useful tool. I do order them a lot, but understand that an MRI should be ordered for specific situations, and may provide information that has no bearing on your current complaints. I'm Dr. John Shim, discussing when you should get an MRI of your spine. Thank you for listening. If you'd like more information about similar topics please subscribe to our newsletter or a YouTube channel. Thank you.

Last modified: November 1, 2019

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