Brain Health

Why patients with back pain need an MRI

Magnetic resonance imaging—better known as MRI—is a test health care professionals use to diagnose health issues for millions of Americans every year—and perhaps no group has benefited more than people who suffer from neck or back pain.

Stacy Bell, FNP-C. She’s worked for 19 years as a nurse practitioner with Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine, and it’s her job to help patients get the right care at the right time.

Among other duties, Bell performs triage with new patients, ordering tests and helping them access care. In most cases, she said, patients improve without surgery. But the right tests can play an important role in any patient’s treatment and recovery.

The right tests at the right time

Bell said that x-rays and CT scans may be valuable in assessing a back or neck problem but that an MRI offers a whole different level of imaging. “An MRI sees things that an x-ray or CT scan doesn’t see,” Bell said. “X-rays and CT scans are faster and cheaper, and they can show you something. But they don’t see soft tissue, so you can’t see nerves or discs or the spinal column.

“An MRI shows you soft tissue, so it’s easier to diagnose a herniation or degenerative disc disease or even a tumor. That’s why they can be so valuable for patients with back problems.”

Bell said some insurance plans want patients to fail “more conservative” treatment options before approving an MRI. They want patients to have x-rays, and maybe pursue a course of physical therapy or anti-inflammatory medication before going with a more-expensive MRI. 

“We don’t just jump into MRIs,” Bell said. “It depends entirely on the patient and what the patient is experiencing.”

Best advice: be informed

Bell said the most important thing for patients is to have an advocate—or advocate for themselves—whenever they have a health issue.

“If you’ve had a test or a treatment, has someone explained it to you? Do you understand the results? Get copies of your test results and make sure they make sense to you. Then you can make the best decision about the options available to you,” she said.

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