You are NOT your MRI – MRIs for Low Back Pain Can Cause More Harm Than Good

Mike had the unique opportunity to spend 4 months treating in China. Sadly, the people there have an extremely low level of education and understanding of their health. Every day in the clinic, we battled not just construed cultural enigmas (“my back hurts because of the cold wind”), but also improper education/advice  (“my doctor told me if I do anything more vigorous than walking my nerve will impinge and I will be paralyzed”). One of the biggest reasons why Craig, Arash, and I started The Prehab Guys’ in the first place was to inject some truth and science into the fitness and health industries. Proper education on your movement system, from why you experience pain to self-management strategies, GO A LONG WAY in making this world a much better and happier place. Education is power. Without further ado, fact #1…

you are not your MRI


MRIs for low back pain, especially when it comes to musculoskeletal low back pain, are not just useless – they can actually cause more harm than good.  If you and I (both healthy individuals) had an MRI, I can almost guarantee our results would AT A MINIMUM read something along the lines of “mild degenerative changes at L4-5”. Or even “slight disc buldge at L3-4”. Does that mean I can’t walk and my back aches for days? No. If my back does start aching, does it mean it’s from my “disc buldge”? Probably not. And could more likely be explained by sleeping in the wrong position one night or not properly hip hinging while deadlifting yesterday. Just because there are “findings” on an MRI, it does NOT mean that’s the cause of your low back pain.

MRIs for low back pain

I hate to break it to you, but that MRI shouldn’t dictate or influence ONE BIT how your physical therapist manages your pain. Because guess what, you and joe schmo can have the same exact MRI findings, but Joe could be in 10/10 pain while you feel like you could do a triathlon. A physical therapist will treat YOU. And YOUR clinical presentation. What things make YOU feel worse or better. What impairments YOU have. What movements YOU need. Not what an image shows, as everyone’s MRI will undoubtedly show something.


No matter how long you have suffered from back issues, it is never too late to start feeling better. We get it, we have dealt with low back issues too! We have blended science with our clinical expertise and our personal experiences to provide you with the ultimate solution. This program has been tested and proven by countless people both in the clinic and digitally, and we know it can help you too! For more click HERE.


Now, don’t get us wrong – MRIs definitely have a time and place and are a useful tool in ruling out the big bad uglies like tumors or true spinal cord compression. However, many people run to get an MRI the moment they are in a little bit of discomfort. It’s ruining our healthcare system – financially and socially. And when we healthcare providers fail to educate those on their findings, we’re failing our patients. Don’t the words “degeneration” or “disc bulge” sound daunting, definitely if you’re a relatively fit 35-year-old? If we don’t educate the public on radiographic/MRI findings, it’s natural to feel scared, and become fixed on your imaging and consequently loose up. It’s a downward spiral for many.  This is why MRIs for low back pain – without proper education – can cause more harm than good.

MRIs for low back pain

To sum it up, here’s a direct quote from a major 2014 review by Brinjikji et al: “signs of degeneration are present in very high percentages of healthy people with no problem at all. Many imaging-based degenerative features are likely part of normal aging and unassociated with pain.”


  • Dan
    Posted at 10:35h, 19 April Reply

    Question is: how can you discern whether they have a legitimate lower back problem or not?

    Does it mean that the proper cure for lower back pain is almost invariably core stability , proper alignment and hip & thoracic mobility?

    What do I tell people as a personal trainer who specializes in fixing musculoskeletal dysfunctions, but doesn’t have the scope of a physical therapist?

    • Michael Lau
      Posted at 05:05h, 23 April Reply

      As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, we are trained in screening for red flags – true medical problems and know when to refer out. As a personal trainer, if someone is in pain, you should refer them to see a physical therapist or other health care professional. Don’t do anything your professional license does not allow.

  • Rachel
    Posted at 20:20h, 19 April Reply

    Thank you!!!!!!
    This I will be sharing with all of my students

  • Ben
    Posted at 07:59h, 29 November Reply

    This is excellent information that you synthesized very well. Thanks for that! However, there are multiple grammar issues and words missing in multiple sentences that make this very useful article hard to read. Please correct so that I can use this for patient education.

    • Michael Lau
      Posted at 08:30h, 29 November Reply

      Updated. Please feel free the share. Cheers, TPG

  • Wes Sheard
    Posted at 10:14h, 29 November Reply

    I recently (9 weeks out) had a microdisectomy on my l5-s1 disc. I’m an active firefighter/ golfer and do CrossFit. As far as rehab and long term health career wise what can I be doing to “pre- hab” my back from now on. Thanks for the great videos and info.

    • Michael Lau
      Posted at 06:37h, 30 November Reply

      Sounds cliche, but move. Get back to doing all the things you used to do, without fear you are hurting yourself. Work with a physio on proper movement mechanics…especially for golf and crossfit. Lots of repetitive movements so you want to ensure you are doing everything right. From a golf standpoint, hip mobility is huge. especially lead hip IR. Prehab is individualized so its best to see someone in person who can tailor a plan directly for you. We do offer online prehab consultation in which we can make a plan together if that’s something you would be interested in.

  • Samuel Pegram
    Posted at 04:46h, 09 December Reply

    MRI is a technology that is used to see detailed image of the body’s soft tissue and bones that are damaged. It scans the spine by using a magnet that goes around the body. Being an expert of it, I am sorry to disagree but it is not harmful as you are saying. It is approved as a very helpful for curing spine issues.

    • Jon
      Posted at 14:06h, 03 April Reply

      Sam are you arguing with the research?

    • Nicole
      Posted at 12:38h, 14 April Reply

      An MRI isn’t going to “cure” anything. Do you mean diagnose?

    • Cassandra
      Posted at 10:51h, 22 April Reply

      MRIs certainly have their uses but I think the author is just saying they’re not everything, and you shouldn’t rely on them completely.

  • Nicole
    Posted at 12:43h, 14 April Reply

    Big fan of the prehab guys and really like this article as just the beginning of the topic. Unfortunately the “cold wind” you mention can cause back pain. When a person has central sensitization with temperature allodynia, a cool breeze could certainly be perceived as pain. Dismissing someone’s claims of pain can be just as detrimental as incidental findings on an MRI. You and your patients could benefit greatly from some pain neuroscience education.

    • Michael Lau
      Posted at 13:17h, 14 April Reply

      Hi Nicole,

      We are extremely versed in pain neuroscience education and I feel you are taking the main point of this article out of context.


  • Violet
    Posted at 06:48h, 05 June Reply

    This is an interesting article. I’m 31 and a few years ago I was having left leg pain and tightness. I’ve been doing crossfit for 4 years, and played college basketball and soccer. The outside of my thigh was constantly aching when doing squats with weight. I couldn’t sit for long periods or my left leg would start hurting and tightening up. I initially thought it was a hip problem. Finally when I had an MRI followed by a CT the images indicated bilateral spondylolysis, and spondylithis of my L5, with a grade 1 slip. I thought to myself, how? I didn’t fall, and I don’t know how it happened. I was told several things. Do Pilates and avoid CrossFit. One wrong move, and you can become paralyzed if there is more slippage. I was also told I can do crossfit, but be mindful with form which I already am. I continued to do crossfit, and i have my good days and bad. Some days I have sciatica like pain, and other days I feel great. I do core stability work, unilateral work, and take my recovery days. My only existing complaint is My left leg hasn’t really developed enough strength in comparison to my right after focusing on unilateral. Other that, it’s been better after diagnosis and recommendations.

  • Leda McDaniel
    Posted at 08:34h, 08 December Reply

    Interesting, I wrote a related post on xrays/imaging (had not read this prior to writing my blog post- but the titles/themes are similar!)

  • Beate Ytreberg
    Posted at 04:17h, 17 January Reply

    I absolutely agree with the important main point. Crucial Message to get across. At the same time , is it less agreeable calling chinese pepole badly educated and having misunderstandings. Some people have not had the opportunity – or luxury- of education, or they are educated but in a different way. Misunderstandings – maybe. But everybody try to make sense of their experiences with whatever information they posess. You do not have to go to China to find people with different levels of education, different world views or different understandings. A less patronizing approach to cultural differences is always a better starting point for understanding, , regardless if those cultural differences exist across national borders or other borders.

    • Michael Lau
      Posted at 19:21h, 29 February Reply

      Sorry if you took offense to the language or tone, that was not my message at all. I am chinese! And fully agree with what you said!

  • Sean
    Posted at 17:22h, 27 August Reply

    Hi, 3 yrs ago when I worked as a fitness trainer, I slipped a bit while I was trying to help a trainee by handing him an EZ-bar to do an exercise for the triceps , while he was lying on the bench.
    I felt my lower back like sounding a click and I immediately knew that this is because the 80lbs overload and slipped a bit forward.
    Since then I feel pain from time to time,but haven’t done any imaging or MRI or CT .
    I decided to do the big 3 exercises by Stuart Mcgill , several stretching exercises and SFMR etc.
    My question is if I should do any scanning in order to know exactly what is going on in my lower back or it would be useful?
    Thanks in advance.

    • Michael Lau
      Posted at 17:55h, 14 September Reply

      Hey Sean,

      Unfortunately, we can’t give medical advice; however, movement is medicine and hopefully by now you are feeling better! IF not, we’d suggest checking in with your local health care provider!

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