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Most people will experience back pain at some point in their lives, unfortunately.  Odds are that if you don’t have back pain, you know at least one person who does.  Different studies estimate that between 60% and 80% of people will experience back pain.  It can range from a nuisance to debilitating.

Oftentimes, patients with low back pain ask about getting an imaging study of their spine, such as an X-ray or MRI, to help determine the cause of their pain.  Oftentimes, degenerative disc disease will be seen on imaging reports – particularly if the patient is 40 years old or older.  Disc bulges or herniation’s are another common finding, which can make patients quite anxious and worried. 

As it turns out, these findings are actually quite common – even for someone who has no back pain at all!  Let me say that again:  These are things we can see on a spine of someone who is not in pain!  On the other hand, sometimes a patient in terrible pain can have a perfect looking X-ray or MRI!  So, what on earth does this mean? It means that there is something else that is causing the pain.  We refer to this as nonspecific low back pain.

That is sometimes why you hear stories of friends and family who have had back surgery that failed.  The surgeon, in a good faith effort, eliminated what looked iffy on the MRI, but it didn’t help!  That’s because the bulging, degenerated disc wasn’t the problem, and why many doctors are reluctant to order MRI’s.  Not only are MRI’s expensive, but they can lead us down the wrong path – away from the path of recovery and down a path of injections and surgery instead.

What studies show (and what we at PDR see everyday) is that muscles and soft tissue are the root of many problems, which don’t even show up on imaging studies.  If you have tight muscles, weak muscles or imbalanced muscles, that can create a lot of strain on the spine.  And that strain can hurt a lot!  Sometimes that pain will even refer down into your buttock or thigh (oftentimes referred to as sciatica), which can seem even scarier. 

Muscular problems can happen to anyone.  An athlete can sprain a muscle, an otherwise healthy person can slip on the ice and irritate a muscle, a worker can strain their back by using poor body mechanics and/or sit with poor posture all day at work.  The wonderful news is that these problems are very manageable!

At PDR, our physicians, physical therapists and occupational therapists are highly skilled at helping you get your spine back into shape.  We are experts at knowing which stretches, strengthening exercises and manual therapies to use to get you back on track.  So try not to worry if your imaging studies show a problem, we can help