When MRI Scan Shows Abnormalities They May Not Be the Cause of the Problem

It has become more commonplace in Chicago medical circles to order an MRI scan early on in the assessment process. Most Chicago and Illinois doctors view MRI scans as a useful tool to get to the bottom of a patient’s symptoms and aid them in diagnosing problems from headaches to foot aches.

For example, if you come in complaining of constant knee pain then your physician may order an MRI scan. Let’s say that the MRI scan shows torn cartilage and your physician tells you that surgery is the only way to relieve your pain and fix the problem. So you undergo surgery and then physical therapy, but still are experiencing the same pain. Eventually you find out that the torn cartilage was not responsible for your pain- your newly diagnosed arthritis was.

More and more we see patients who have some sort of irregularity on an MRI scan that may not necessarily be responsible for their medical problems. This is a particularly prevalent problem among the millions of people who go to doctors complaining of constant pain. Many of these patients demand that a scan be done to determine why their pain persists.

But in many cases it’s not clear whether what is shown on the scan is the real cause of pain. Take our above hypothetical- the scan did show torn cartilage which in time was determined to not be the pain’s cause, but not until after numerous procedures and many dollars later. This lack of a definitive cause is leaving many people in a medical conundrum of whether to have what amounts to unnecessary surgery that could make their condition worse, or do nothing decisive at all.

According to some medical professionals, every time a new technology allows us a new and better image of the body’s internal structures it reveals numerous new and different abnormalities. In short, because the MRI technology is so advanced it shows every little problem, much more so than a simple x-ray would- but again, all the problems shown are not necessarily causing the patient physical problems.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that arthritic patients with meniscal tears are just as likely to complain of pain as not. These tears tend to occur as part of the arthritis disease process itself and surgically repairing the tears will not eliminate the pain. So even though these tears would appear on an MRI, repairing them could have zero affect on one’s pain levels.

The article further states that as you age the likelihood that you will develop a meniscal tear drastically increases and is a function of aging. If you are 60 years old, the chance of a meniscal tear is about 40%. Other common findings on MRI scans are herniated discs, which show up in about 20-25% of people who have their spines scanned. And as many as 60% of healthy adults have degenerative changes in their spines but don’t feel any associated pain.

The bottom line is that what is found on an MRI scan is not necessarily causing your complaints. Take our example of the middle aged person with knee pain and accompanying arthritis- the meniscus operation to repair the tear may not really relieve the pain. For those people, knowing the true origin of their pain, many are just declaring their willingness to live with the pain for the time being.

Kreisman Law Offices has been practicing Cook County medical malpractice law for over 30 years, serving areas such as Evanston, Oak Park, Chicago, and Schaumburg.