The catastrophization effects of an MRI report on the patient and surgeon and the benefits of 'clinical reporting': results from an RCT and blinded trials

Eur Spine J. 2021 Jul;30(7):2069-2081. doi: 10.1007/s00586-021-06809-0. Epub 2021 Mar 21.


Purpose: Inappropriate use of MRI leads to increasing interventions and surgeries for low back pain (LBP). We probed the potential effects of a routine MRI report on the patient's perception of his spine and functional outcome of treatment. An alternate 'clinical reporting' was developed and tested for benefits on LBP perception.

Methods: In Phase-I, 44 LBP patients were randomized to Group A who had a factual explanation of their MRI report or Group B, who were reassured that the MRI findings showed normal changes. The outcome was compared at 6 weeks by VAS, PSEQ-2, and SF-12. In Phase-II, clinical reporting was developed, avoiding potential catastrophizing terminologies. In Phase-III, 20 MRIs were reported by both routine and clinical methods. The effects of the two methods were tested on four categories of health care professionals (HCP) who read them blinded on their assessment of severity of disease, possible treatment required, and the probability of surgery.

Results: Both groups were comparable initial by demographics and pain. After 6 weeks of treatment, Group A had a more negative perception of their spinal condition, increased catastrophization, decreased pain improvement, and poorer functional status(p = significant for all). The alternate method of clinical reporting had significant benefits in assessment of lesser severity of the disease, shift to lesser severity of intervention and surgery in three groups of HCPs.

Conclusion: Routine MRI reports produce a negative perception and poor functional outcomes in LBP. Focussed clinical reporting had significant benefits, which calls for the need for 'clinical reporting' rather than 'Image reporting'.

Keywords: Catastrophization; Clinical reporting; Low back pain; MRI reports; Nocebo effect.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Catastrophization
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Research Design
  • Surgeons*