Spinal MRI in people without back pain shows many herniated, bulging discs
PainSci summary of Jensen 1994?This page is one of thousands in the PainScience.com bibliography. It is not a general article: it is focussed on a single scientific paper, and it may provide only just enough context for the summary to make sense. Links to other papers and more general information are provided at the bottom of the page, as often as possible. ★★★☆☆?3-star ratings are for typical studies with no more (or less) than the usual common problems. Ratings are a highly subjective opinion, and subject to revision at any time. If you think this paper has been incorrectly rated, please let me know.
The authors found 28% of healthy adults with no low back pain had a herniated disk, and 52% had a disk bulge! They conclude: “On MRI examination of the lumbar spine, many people without back pain have disk bulges or protrusions but not extrusions. Given the high prevalence of these findings and of back pain, the discovery by MRI of bulges or protrusions in people with low back pain may frequently be coincidental.”
BACKGROUND: The relation between abnormalities in the lumbar spine and low back pain is controversial. We examined the prevalence of abnormal findings on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the lumbar spine in people without back pain.
METHODS: We performed MRI examinations on 98 asymptomatic people. The scans were read independently by two neuroradiologists who did not know the clinical status of the subjects. To reduce the possibility of bias in interpreting the studies, abnormal MRI scans from 27 people with back pain were mixed randomly with the scans from the asymptomatic people. We used the following standardized terms to classify the five intervertebral disks in the lumbosacral spine: normal, bulge (circumferential symmetric extension of the disk beyond the interspace), protrusion (focal or asymmetric extension of the disk beyond the interspace), and extrusion (more extreme extension of the disk beyond the interspace). Nonintervertebral disk abnormalities, such as facet arthropathy, were also documented.
RESULTS: Thirty-six percent of the 98 asymptomatic subjects had normal disks at all levels. With the results of the two readings averaged, 52 percent of the subjects had a bulge at at least one level, 27 percent had a protrusion, and 1 percent had an extrusion. Thirty-eight percent had an abnormality of more than one intervertebral disk. The prevalence of bulges, but not of protrusions, increased with age. The most common nonintervertebral disk abnormalities were Schmorl's nodes (herniation of the disk into the vertebral-body end plate), found in 19 percent of the subjects; annular defects (disruption of the outer fibrous ring of the disk), in 14 percent; and facet arthropathy (degenerative disease of the posterior articular processes of the vertebrae), in 8 percent. The findings were similar in men and women.
CONCLUSIONS: On MRI examination of the lumbar spine, many people without back pain have disk bulges or protrusions but not extrusions. Given the high prevalence of these findings and of back pain, the discovery by MRI of bulges or protrusions in people with low back pain may frequently be coincidental.
These three articles on PainScience.com cite Jensen 1994 as a source:
- PS Trigger Points & Myofascial Pain Syndrome — A guide to the unfinished science of muscle pain, with reviews of every theory and self-treatment and therapy option
- PS Save Yourself from Low Back Pain! — Low back pain myths debunked and all your treatment options reviewed
- PS Your Back Is Not Out of Alignment — Debunking the obsession with alignment, posture, and other biomechanical bogeymen as major causes of pain