I often see people in clinic who are worried about what’s come up on an MRI scan. That’s understandable enough – there’s often some pretty scary sounding language, and it’s easy to come away convinced that you’re broken and need surgery, or perhaps that you’ll have to give up combat sports altogether.
I keep my own MRI scan from 2013 on my desk to reassure people. This one was taken at a point where I was getting nerve symptoms in my arm, and was even considering surgery to fuse the vertebrae. Fortunately, I decided to give the rehab another go – and now, six years later I’m symptom free and back to training BJJ with few problems.
What doctors may not always tell you is that “abnormalities” show up on MRI scans of normal people all the time. If you take someone with no symptoms at all, there’s a very good chance that you’ll see some “degenerative changes”, “disc bulges”, “defects”, “tears” and other things with long medical names. In fact, there’s nothing more abnormal than a completely “normal” MRI scan. So if you happen to have pain from an injury, it can be very hard to tell how much of what shows up on your MRI is relevant to your pain. (This is one reason why medical professionals are not keen on sending people for an MRIs unless there’s a particular need to.)
The human body also has an amazing ability to heal and adapt following an injury. Most people who have an injury to the discs in their lower back, for example, will recover full function and go on to have very few symptoms without the need for surgery. A good rehabilitation programme can help speed the recovery and increase your chance of making a successful return to sport – but even without any specialist care or advice, many people will get better with time.
I have lots of examples of people who came to me thinking that they’d have to give up their sport. Some of them had even had advice from a doctor who’d taken one look at their MRI results and told them to stop training. In the majority of these cases, we’ve found rehabilitation has been very successful and allowed the person to get back to doing what they want to do at a good level.
The take home message here is: don’t panic. Before you hang up your gloves or sell your gi, get a second opinion from someone who is up to date with the evidence, and understands what you do.