Why Your X-Ray Findings May Be Misleading

Is Your X-Ray Misleading You?
Everyone at some point in their life will likely experience a bout of low back or neck pain. Many will visit a health care practitioner to have it addressed and occasionally they may be sent for an x-ray in the hopes of understanding what is causing their pain.
All too often, especially as we age, the image will show some arthritis in the spine, a condition called degenerative disc disease. Degeneration can range from mild (slight narrowing between two vertebrae) to severe (severe narrowing). Upon seeing the x-ray image, patients and occasionally health care practitioners are quick to link any degeneration to the patient’s pain. Patients may become very anxious and believe that nothing can be done to help with their pain besides undergoing a very invasive surgical procedure. On top of that, they develop beliefs that any movement is actually causing harm and further degenerative changes.
To illustrate, an x-ray of a spine with no degenerative changes (left), and one with moderate degeneration (right) is shown below.

It is time to reveal some truths.
First off, although degenerative disc disease sounds like a very scary condition, it is actually quite normal. As an old clinician of mine once explained, it is simply “wrinkling of the spine,” a common finding seen in the aging process. Although there are times when past traumas or congenital anomalies can accelerate degeneration, for the most part it occurs slowly with aging.
Secondly, it must be recognized that x-rays are not as specific as we think. Many studies have shown that the degree of degeneration does not correlate with the amount of pain an individual is experiencing. For instance, an individual with no back pain may show tremendous amounts of degeneration on an x-ray, whereas someone with terrible pain may have an x-ray showing very little degeneration.
So what does this tell us?
Do not assume that the x-ray is telling the entire story! Although we must consider what the image is showing us, we must not focus solely on that. It is very important that patients do not give up hope and become fearful of movement because they think it will cause further problems. Generally speaking, MOVEMENT IS GOOD.

Have you or a loved one been told that you have degeneration or arthritis in your spine? Go see your local chiropractor and allow these health care professionals to show you the multitude of tools they have in their arsenal to help ease your pain, help you move better and improve your quality of life.

Author: Dr. Marc DiNardo, BSc, DC
Toronto Chiropractor & Medical Acupuncture Provider