As a physiotherapist, I see a lot of people who have had some form of medical imaging – X-ray, MRI or Ultrasound. These images can be REALLY useful to help diagnose some conditions and plan whether something like surgery is needed. But did you know that 96% of people with no pain or problem with their shoulder showed an ‘abnormality’ on an MRI scan? Or that 37% of 20-year-olds with no back pain show degeneration of their spinal discs? So what does your scan result REALLY mean? And should you still do yoga? Read on for a few simple guidelines on whether to welcome or worry about your scan results.
What Scans Show
The world of medical imaging is complex and wide-ranging with lots of forms of imaging for your doctor to choose from. No one scan will find everything and which scan is best for you depends on what your doctor is looking for. Here are a few of the more common ones:
- X-Rays – great for showing bones and perfect for breaks in general but still won’t find hairline fractures or some stress fractures. Will show some signs of degeneration in joints. Not expensive, quick to get and easily available on NHS.
- MRI – Magnetic resonance Imaging – good for showing soft tissues generally, can be good for some bone conditions. Really detailed, more expensive than X-Rays and usually takes a few days or weeks to get one (unless your condition is life-threatening!).
- Ultrasound – Also good for soft tissues. Produces a film of moving pictures rather than a static picture. Can be used while the patient is moving to see how tissues move over each other (or maybe don’t when there is a problem!). Cheaper than MRI’s but still often have a wait of a few days or weeks to get one.
The Power of the Picture
A patient arrives in the Emergency Department with a story that they have fallen off their bike and their arm is painful, swollen and in a strange shape. An X-ray is ideal for this and will tell the doctor if the bone is broken. Then they can treat it. Now fast forward a few years – the same patient has another X-Ray on their arm – the break will have healed and is most likely asymptomatic (pain-free). But, it will still show on the X-Ray, and it is now ‘normal’ for that person. This is an example of how scans and X-Rays can show things that might look and sound like a problem but are in fact nothing to worry about.
As scans are getting more sophisticated and detailed they are showing us more of the wonderful world of anatomy. They are showing us when tissues are healthy and not so healthy. They give us information about how things are now and how they have been BUT they cannot give us the whole story. They need to be interpreted by experts (Radiologists, Ultrasonographers, and doctors) and viewed in light of what story the patient is telling us. Do the symptoms match the picture? If so – great we have a reason for the symptoms and can treat it.
When Not to Worry
And if the picture shows something that doesn’t match the symptoms – what then? This is really common for MRI’s because they are SO detailed. If there are no symptoms that can be ‘blamed’ on whatever has found on the scan – great again! It is ‘normal’ for that person and nothing to worry about.
I recently read a review that had looked at lots of research and came up with some AMAZING results. All of the images were for asymptomatic individuals (ie people with no pain or injury in that part of the body) and LOOK what they found!
- 87% of 1211 adults aged 20 to 70-years old showed a disc bulge in their lower back (often called a slipped disc)
- 37-67% of adults showed hip impingement and 68% had labral tears in their hips
- 14% of 5397 adults under 40 showed Osteoarthritis changes in their knees; 11% had damage to the cartilage linings of the knee bones
- 19% of people over 40 showed tears in the knee menisci (or cartilages)
Isn’t that incredible! It means that LOADS of us are walking around with ‘medical stuff’ that would show on a scan but cause us no problem at all.
Similarly, people walk with ‘medical stuff’ that may show on a scan but has now healed, so it’s no longer a problem. Like the broken arm example above. A problem you’ve been told you have in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it is a problem now. An X-Ray or scan is a snapshot of how things looked at that time. A few days, weeks or years later it could look very different. Or it could look the same but it is not causing you any problems. Either way, this is a good thing.
Can I Still Do Yoga?
The simple answer to that is YES, YES, YES and YES again! If your scan or X-Ray shows ‘something’ you can most definitely still do yoga. As yogis, we should be ‘listening to’ our bodies when we practise. If the ‘something’ is not causing you any pain or problem – the world is your oyster and you can do anything on (or off) the mat that your body tells you it is comfortable with.
If the ‘something’ on the scan is causing you problems then listening to your body is still the way forward. It may be that some poses or versions of poses cause you pain or discomfort – well, avoid them and concentrate on what feels good and is comfortable.
It is easy to become wary of movement when you have experienced pain on movement in the past. Fear of making a problem worse is very powerful. But if your doctor has not put you in a brace or plaster cast then you are safe to move as much as you like. Most injuries, illnesses, and medical problems actually benefit from movement. Gently building strength and range of movement improves function and actually reduces pain in the long run. Yoga can help recovery. Result!
Top Tips For The Injured Yogi
- Movement is good – move in the range that you are comfortable – do not force anything.
- Start gently – try a few minutes of gentle yoga at first. Maybe stay sitting in a chair for a few modified poses. Build up the strength of poses and the time you practice gradually.
- Modify, modify, modify – use props and versions of poses that work for you.
- Think strength – muscles waste and weaken if not used for a while during an injury or illness. Strengthening work helps to reverse this.
- Comfort when stretching – all stretches should be comfortable. The stretch sensation should ease or stay the same as you hold a pose – if it is increasing you are pushing too hard.
- Remember breath work (pranayama) and meditation – this is still yoga! And both will help you to manage the pain and frustration of illness or injury.
Yoga is perfect to help you recover from an injury – just keep it comfortable! Never stop listening to your body and you will be safe. Medical conditions, injuries and scan results are no barrier to yoga practice – in fact, you can think of them as invitations to do more.
Yoga can also help protect your body from many problems that can plague the less active person as they get older – we have all seen the pictures of 100-year old yoga teachers going strong. Prevention is better than cure!