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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.

Last modified: November 1, 2019

26 thoughts on “When to get an MRI

  1. I have pain in left arm with back and is pain is comin in left leg too from 6 yrs back its getting severe day by day can i go for MRI

    1. We do not provide opinions or a diagnosis on patients we have not personally examined. Please see your primary physician to get names of reputable spine physicians you can see.

  2. I have numbness, tingling& some loss of feeling having my M.R.I today any suggestions it’s my left leg calf & behind the knee pain Allmost like a dull toothache??

    1. We do not provide opinions or a diagnosis on patients we have not personally examined. Please see your primary physician to get names of reputable spine physicians you can see.

  3. I had lower back pain since pregnancy 10 years ago. It did not go. According to doctors it is mudcle pain. When im on meds i dont feel pain but without meds i feel a little tolerable pain and more pain when it is pressed. Do i need to have MRI?

  4. Hi sir..what is the best procedure to diagnose an ankylosing spondylitis? My cousin only got a severe pain on his feet after a month , backpain is his major complaint.

  5. Dear sir,

    Very good information with simplicity, as the self had suffered from the L4 disc bulge three years back. After six months rehab exercise I was perfectly fine and joined the gym for strength training, since 2.5 years I am regular in gym but still avoid front bending and deadlift exercise.
    Your article has cleared all the doubts which arise after seeing my MRI report like disc degenerated disc dissication I was scared that time.
    Thanks.
    Pls share your suggestion if any.

  6. Am 45. I have had back pain for 2 weeks now. I can’t stand for longer periods anymore. Pain mostly is on my left just above my buttocks. Could it be age or I need to do an MRI?

  7. My shoulder is 6 months pain.i canot fut up my hand.i go to the dr.so many medicine they give me but is useless.i want to know what should i do?

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