Many of us have been there. We start to have pain and get sent to get an x-ray or an MRI to confirm or deny a hypothesis about a structure that may or may not be involved in our discomfort. There’s quite a bit of uncertainty there. The general habit is to then attribute our pain to that particular structure or diagnosis. While imaging is an invaluable tool that we have at our disposal to rule out more serious problems, we often put more stock in the minor issues that show up than is warranted. It’s easy to become trapped by a diagnosis, especially those that sound scary when results are communicated to someone who is already afraid of what might be in their future. Some of these common diagnoses include “degenerative disc disease, arthritis, disc bulge” etc. While these words may strike fear in even the most stalwart of individuals, fear not! There is hope beyond the imaging!
Believe it or not, there are many, many people walking about leading perfectly normal lives with seemingly “abnormal” anatomical changes present in their bodies. It is estimated that 40% of people under the age of 30 and 90% of people ages 50-55 have lumbar disc degeneration but only a small percentage of these people actually have symptoms. Similarly, an MRI study of adults with no shoulder pain showed that 50% of them had rotator cuff tears that they had no knowledge of. And there are many more documented studies with similar results in the neck and knee. How can this be? With these results, are these “abnormalities” actually that far from normal? We can infer from these results that structure does not determine function. We can liken degeneration to the normal occurrence of developing wrinkles on your face. Everyone gets them at some point, and while you may not like them, they don’t cause pain or change in function. Degeneration (things like arthritis and disc disease) is like having wrinkles on the inside. It is completely normal to have changes that occur as our bodies age, but they don’t have to cause pain or change the way we live.
So how do we respond when imaging results give us this kind of information? The first thing is to realize that human beings are resilient and amazing at adapting! That’s cool, right? The fact that our bodies can go through changes that at first glance sound detrimental, but then overcome them and adapt to the challenges presented is awesome! Many times, these adaptations are very, very helpful and can keep a person doing everything they want to, such as with the group of people who have no symptoms and have rotator cuff tears. However, sometimes the short-term adaptations that the body and brain come up with aren’t helpful in the long run if the demands on the body are higher than the capacity of the individual.
The good news is, a physical therapist can help look at these responses by the body and help to determine what the best course of action is to keep you moving and functioning in an optimal way. Often, this simply means to continue to move with some parameters, as well as increasing your body’s ability to handle its demands, whether it be improving mobility, strength, or efficiency of movements patterns. We at Mobility Fit would love to be the ones to help guide you through this process and set you on the path to getting back to the things that you love.