To MRI or Not to MRI…

…Well that wasn’t the question if you had back pain at the end of last year. It was all but impossible to get an MRI scan of your back in Swansea .. But why?

Well I’m not privy to local health board decisions, but I could make an educated guess. Numerous studies have cut the link between MRI results and back pain. Ninety percent of 70 year olds in a 2015 study had damage to the discs in their spine. Yet none of these patients had back pain. If you think that’s an inevitability of ageing you’d be right. But this ageing starts young. 52% of 30 years olds in this study had disk damage also.

This isn’t a fringe study either. One of the first studies looking at MRI findings and pain was carried out in 1995 by the New England Journal of Medicine. It took 98 healthy, pain free people and MRI’d their backs. Again, 52% presented with disk protrusion or some level of degenerative change in the spine.

The  British Association of Spine Surgeons agree “Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scans (MRI scans) give a very clear picture of the structure of the spine. It does not tell the doctor why the spine is painful. In 85% of patients we are unable to say why back pain occurs” (

So If Not MRI, then What?

if you’re in your 50’s or 60’s and have an MRI it would be unusual for you not to have an MRI report that mentioned some degenerative changes in the spine. This isn’t a reason to worry. If you have back pain, often it can be more informative to check range of movement, strength and sensitivity to pressure on all the structures in and adjacent to the area of pain.  Acupuncture treatment can frequently alleviate the pain.

What To expect From Acupuncture Treatment

Outcomes for treatment can vary. Acupuncture is a treatment tailored to the individual . An individuals circumstance affects the duration and outcome of treatment. I have treated some patients with recent onset (acute) back pain and resolved it within 3 treatments. At the other end of the spectrum I have treated patients with significant nerve damage. With these patients, acupuncture is often an ongoing weekly treatment which manages the pain, rather than eliminating it. These two patient profiles are outliers. Most patients I see typically need 4-8 sessions, depending on age, fitness, length of time with back pain and severity of symptoms. The general rule of thumb is that the younger, healthier and less time you have been suffering the quicker it is to treat.