MRIs: Part of the Solution, or Problem?

The extent to which early MRIs contribute to the perception of disability has yet to be fully quantified but appears to be significant.

Another study sponsored by Liberty Mutual concludes that early magnetic resonance imaging for diagnosis of back pain leads to higher costs and poorer outcomes. The study, published in the August issue of the medical journal Spine, showed that when back pain patients went through MRI scans within the first month after injury, they were between 18 to 55 times as likely as the reference group to receive more diagnostic and invasive procedures. Glenn Pransky, a co-author of the study and director of the Liberty Mutual Center for Disability Research, said that MRIs can put patients in a mindset of trying to find a specific problem in their back and then seeking to fix it. “People get hung up on thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got this ruptured disc. That must be the problem. I won’t be well until somebody fixes that ruptured disc,’” Pransky said. As many of us know, herniated discs and other spinal "abnormalities" are actually quite common. Pain is complex, and the cause of pain is often illusive. In an Aug. 20 webinar from managed care company Paradigm Outcomes, two physicians pointed out that pain can come from many places. "When you look at somebody’s pain, they have the pain sensation -- there could be nerve pain, there could be soft tissue-muscle-tendon pain," said Steven Moskowitz, senior medical director of Paradigm’s pain program. "They could have pain because they’re deconditioned and out of shape and stiff, and so it hurts to be stiff and to move when you’re stiff. And then they can have. . .  emotional components."
Bowzer's pain started bending over for his cigar.
  In his most recent book, Living Abled and Healthy, Christopher Brigham, MD, no stranger to workers' compensation and lead editor to the AMA 6th Ed. Guide for Rating Permanent Disability, examines people who have had catastrophic injuries or who grew up "less than able" but overcame these difficulties, and compares them with folks who can't seem to surmount such obstacles. [Disclosure -- Brigham is a friend, and I contributed a small part to the book.] Brigham argues that our mind-body connections are surprisingly strong and that people in general discount the effect our emotions, psychology, feelings and perceptions have on our physical being. "If we believe something is helping us we will likely feel better," Brigham says. "If we believe something is hurting us, we will likely feel worse. Our attitudes define who we are, and the choices we make determine our destinies." Robert Aurbach, an attorney, researcher and international workers' comp expert now consulting in Australia, has noted that neuroplasticity -- the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections -- can play a big role in one's perception of ability versus disability. Essentially, continued "training" to be disabled, rather than abled, forms neural connections that reinforce negative associations with pain. The extent to which early MRIs contribute to the perception and emotion of disability has yet to be fully quantified, but the Liberty Mutual study suggests the connection it is not insignificant. According to a 2013 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sprains, strains and tears made up 38% of work-related injuries in 2012, making those the most common source of claims. In that category, the back was the most-often injured body part, making up 36% of sprains, strains and tears. Essentially that means that 1/6th of all work injury claims are related to back pain. How many of those end up worse because of diagnosis and treatment fostered by early MRI findings and might have otherwise been adequately (and perhaps more effectively and efficiently) treated conservatively isn't known, but I suspect the number is considerable. The authors of the Liberty Mutual study found that MRI use for patients with lower back pain wasn’t distributed evenly across the U.S., and they hope to continue the study to determine whether certain states are more prone to improper use of the scans. I think it would also be interesting and beneficial to correlate that study with information about disability rates; my guess is that we (the grand collective "we") make people more disabled than they otherwise would be in our zeal to use medical technology and attempt to find easy answers to complex problems, like pain and disability.

David DePaolo

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David DePaolo

David DePaolo is the president and CEO of WorkCompCentral, a workers' compensation industry specialty news and education publication he founded in 1999. DePaolo directs a staff of 30 in the daily publication of industry news across the country, including politics, legal decisions, medical information and business news.


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