When doctors began encountering a surge in patients with lower back pain in the mid-20th century, as I reported for my 2009 book How We Decide, they had few explanations. The lower back is an exquisitely complicated area of the body, full of small bones, ligaments, spinal discs, and minor muscles. Then there’s the spinal cord itself, a thick cable of nerves that can be easily disturbed. There are so many moving parts in the back that doctors had difficulty figuring out what, exactly, was causing a person’s pain. As a result, patients were typically sent home with a prescription for bed rest.
This treatment plan, though simple, was still extremely effective. Even when nothing was done to the lower back, about 90 percent of people with back pain got better within six weeks. The body healed itself, the inflammation subsided, the nerve relaxed.
Over the next few decades, this hands-off approach to back pain remained the standard medical treatment. That all changed, however, with the introduction of magnetic resonance imaging in the late 1970s. These diagnostic machines use powerful magnets to generate stunningly detailed images of the body’s interior. Within a few years, the MRI machine became a crucial diagnostic tool.
The view afforded by MRI led to a new causal story: Back pain was the result of abnormalities in the spinal discs, those supple buffers between the vertebrae. The MRIs certainly supplied bleak evidence: Back pain was strongly correlated with seriously degenerated discs, which were in turn thought to cause inflammation of the local nerves. Consequently, doctors began administering epidurals to quiet the pain, and if it persisted they would surgically remove the damaged disc tissue.
But the vivid images were misleading. It turns out that disc abnormalities are typically not the cause of chronic back pain. The presence of such abnormalities is just as likely to be correlated with the absence of back problems, as a 1994 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed. The researchers imaged the spinal regions of 98 people with no back pain. The results were shocking: Two-thirds of normal patients exhibited “serious problems” like bulging or protruding tissue. In 38 percent of these patients, the MRI revealed multiple damaged discs. Nevertheless, none of these people were in pain. The study concluded that, in most cases, “the discovery of a bulge or protrusion on an MRI scan in a patient with low back pain may frequently be coincidental.”
Similar patterns appear in a new study by James Andrews, a sports medicine orthopedist. He scanned the shoulders of 31 professional baseball pitchers. Their MRIs showed that 90 percent of them had abnormal cartilage, a sign of damage that would typically lead to surgery. Yet they were all in perfect health.
This is not the way things are supposed to work. We assume that more information will make it easier to find the cause, that seeing the soft tissue of the back will reveal the source of the pain, or at least some useful correlations. Unfortunately, that often doesn’t happen. Our habits of visual conclusion-jumping take over. All those extra details end up confusing us; the more we know, the less we seem to understand.