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“An MRI reveals the truth about my back”: a qualitative study about patients’ expectations and attitudes toward the value of MRI in the assessment of back pain.

Lisbeth Petersen, Regner Birkelund, Jette Ammentorp, Berit Schiøttz-Christensen


Background: Patients with back pain increasingly demand MRIs to be part of their assessment. However, in most back pain patients, MRI does not appear to have diagnostic value. Nevertheless, it has been shown that patients who receive an MRI are more satisfied with their treatment even though the imaging may not facilitate their return to well-being.  

Aim: To explore back pain patients’ expectations of and attitudes towards the value of MRI and to understand the relationship between their expectations and patient satisfaction.

Methods: A qualitative study using observations and informal interviews with 62 back pain patients was conducted. Data were analysed according to Malterud’s systematic text condensation method.

Results: Patients perceived MRIs to be an objective visual image of the body that could show them where their back pain was originating. Patients expected MRIs to provide them with a biomedical diagnosis; they considered MRIs to be the ‘true objective’ diagnosis, which would allow them to access various services and support and would lead to legitimization of their pain. The patients’ perceived value of MRI was very high; MRIs gave patients a feeling of being understood and taken seriously. Patients and clinicians had different ideas about the diagnosis of back pain, which could challenge how patients experience the benefits of treatment.

Conclusion: For patients with back pain, the MRI is a valuable tool that leads to their 'real' diagnosis and enables recognition and legitimisation of their experienced pain. To meet patients' expectations, a better understanding of how MRIs are used in diagnosis and treatment must be achieved. Based on our study, we suggest that information about symptoms and the additional information an MRI can provide be clarified to the patient before assessment of back pain.


back pain; patient satisfaction; patient expectation; diagnostic imaging; MRI; qualitative study

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