Experts estimate that four out of every five adults will experience back pain at some point in their life, so it’s not a surprise that 40 percent of MRI scans performed are for back issues. While the technology may be a God-send for a number of conditions and ailments, the value of MRI for isolating back pain has been limited.
Researchers theorize the reason MRI scans have more often than not been a waste of money and resources when it come to back pain is the machines’ basic structure. When an individual has an MRI performed, they are laying down so there is none of the weight-bearing action that happens when walking or running. That means there is no way to physically scan the patient in the position they are in when experiencing the pain.
People who have existing lower-back problems report that running and jogging tends to exacerbate their pain or leads to secondary pain such as sciatica. Statistics show that approximately 20 percent of all sporting injuries involve the lower back or neck. For runners this makes sense considering the mature of hitting pavement with feet creates significant, extended stress on the back.
It has also been shown that runners can actually become measurably shorter after running because water is pressed out of the intervertebral discs during the action of running. This loss of hydration affects the stability of the disc and puts extra strain on spinal joints, which in turn can cause varying degrees of pain or discomfort.
This loss of disc height was shown in a study conducted at the University of Aberdeen where researchers employed an upright scanner to affirm that after an hour of non-stop running there was a reduction in body height for 4- percent of the participants. One volunteer lost 3/4 of an inch (2cm) of body height after running, six had 3/8 of an inch (1 cm) reduction and three had a 1/5 (0.5cm) reduction in body height. The remaining 15 volunteers showed no reduction in body height.
Scanning patients while sitting or standing up offers significant benefits. In more than half of difficult to diagnose cases, upright MRI scanners revealed spinal instability and fluctuating degenerate discs that would have otherwise gone undetected or identified by conventional MRI scanners. The advance has the potential to get runners with lingering back problems healed more quickly and back exercising. The other advantage of upright scanners is that it offers claustrophobic patients a way to be helped without the emotional discomfort of a traditional MRI.
This research begs the question of why patients who suffer from back pain would ever have an MRI done laying down. Professor Francis Smith of the Positional MRI Centre in Aberdeen believes it is simply a matter of tradition. Since that is the way the original scanners did it—in large part because the original technology required the patient to be as perfectly still as possible—doctors keep doing it; plus laying down tends to be more comfortable than standing for patients.
But Dr. Smith believes the increasing availability of upright scanners will prompt a change in how doctors and practitioners alike will employ MRI technology to identify the underlying causes of back pain.
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