A torn meniscus that shows up on the MRI scan may not be the reason why your knee is hurting. For Cheryl Westein, who demanded an MRI and saw a torn cartilage on the scan, the culprit behind her painful knee was actually arthritis. Gina Kolata in a New York Times article reports recent scientific findings that further support what many physicians already believe: radiological imaging is a presurgical tool and “does not help with a diagnosis.”
Dr. Felson and Dr. Modic, in their separate studies, found that abnormalities in scans are common and are not conclusive evidence of a diagnosis. For example, 60 percent of healthy people who do not complain of back pain will turn out to have degenerative changes in their spines. Many abnormalities go away on their own in a few months, requiring no medical intervention.
Relying on scans for diagnoses can lead referring physicians to recommend “unnecessary or sometimes even harmful treatments, including surgery.” If the root cause of the knee pain is arthritis and not the torn meniscus, the pain will return even after a surgery repairing the meniscus, as the arthritic bones continue to wear down the cartilage.
It is important for patients to know that getting radiological imaging is often not the best way to find out what is causing their discomfort. More importantly, since scans reveal abnormalities that may not be “catastrophic findings”, doctors could be misled to recommend harmful regimens that result in extra expenses.