Lengthy MRI scan reports with words such as degeneration, hypertrophy, osteoarthritis, bulging, stenosis, and osteophyte can sound alarming. Carol Hartigan, MD, Medical Director, Spine Center and Spine Rehabilitation Program, explains that MRI reports describe spinal anatomy in detail at each spinal level. These anatomic findings may be normal, and clinically silent.
What Kind of “Abnormal” Findings do MRI Scans Show?
MRI scans in people over age 30 will always show some degree of degeneration of the spine, which is likely part of normal aging and often unassociated with pain. For example, 37% of those in their twenties show disc degeneration, or wearing down of the disc located between the vertebrae, but 96% of those in their eighties have signs of this on imaging.1 Additionally, for those without any symptoms, facet degeneration, or wearing down of the small joints between and behind the vertebrae, is found in just 4% of twenty year olds, but that number jumps to 83% of those in their eighties.1
Spinal Stenosis and MRI Imaging
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal that compresses the spinal cord in the neck or spinal nerves in the low back. 78% of the general population who are 43-93 years old show signs of spinal stenosis on imaging, but the majority of these people (82%) experience no symptoms. 2
MRI imaging can be a useful diagnostic tool, but it’s important to talk to your doctor about what your results mean.
1Brinjikji, W., et al., Am J Neuroradiol 2015; 36:811-6
2Ishimoto Y., et al., Osteoarthritis and Cartilage 2013; 21:783-788