The Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) has refuted claims made in a recent article that suggests improved MRI scanning will support better diagnosis and treatment of complex back pain, a condition that affects 3.7 million Australians.

The story published this week references a research article that suggests back pain can be correctly diagnosed and treated by using a new MRI scanning technique for analysing degenerated spinal discs. The study compared scans performed on rabbits using the new technique, which were then compared to the actual disc in a post-mortem examination. The actual disc matched the scan 97 per cent of the time.

APA National Chair of Pain group, Dianne Wilson says that difficulties diagnosing and treating back pain do not result from inadequate imaging technology, but rather because of the complexity of pain and the poor correlation between pain and tissue damage.

“Chronic back pain is a massive problem, but it is far too simplistic to suggest that it can be rectified and treated by an MRI scan, no matter how high quality it is. The difficulty faced by people with persistent pain and practitioners alike is that the internal state of the disc is not indicative at all of the level of back pain being felt. Research has shown that scan results do not reliably measure back pain at all.”

“Many people will be delighted to hear the results of this study because they are looking for a quick and simple fix for their back pain, but the reality is back pain, and indeed chronic pain generally, is a multi-factorial problem that requires a coordinated approach overseen by trusted health practitioners including GPs, physiotherapists and psychologists.”    

“Contemporary pain science has made great inroads into understanding chronic pain in recent years, but there are no quick fixes, and new scanning technologies are not the silver bullet people in pain are looking for.” 

“A crucial aspect in treating chronic pain is to identify people’s beliefs about their pain in their own context and educate them about the body’s ability to adapt and heal given the right environment. This is best achieved in a multi-disciplinary team where focused exercise and education is delivered by qualified health practitioners such as physios.”


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