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Studies Find Early MRI for Lower Back Pain Often Yield Expensive, Unnecessary Treatment and Longer Disability Periods

Hopkinton, Mass.  - August 20, 2014 – Research conducted by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety finds that inappropriate early use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to diagnose work-related lower back pain correlates with higher medical costs, unnecessary and ineffective procedures, and prolonged disability.

The most recent study  published in Spine (© 2014 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins) examined more than 3,000 workers compensation claims for disabling lower back pain over the course of a full year. Claims in which MRI was performed either within the first 30 days of pain onset or when there was no specific medical condition justifying the MRI yielded significantly higher medical costs, even after controlling for severity. The study found these early or non-indicated MRIs led to a cascade of medical services in the six-month period post-MRI that included electromyography, nerve conduction testing, advanced imaging, injections or surgery. These procedures often occurred soon after the MRI and were 17 to nearly 55 times more likely to occur than in similar claims without MRI.

“Being a highly sensitive test, MRI will quite often reveal common age-related changes that have no correlation to the anatomical source of the lower back pain,” said Glenn S. Pransky, MD, MOccH, Center for Disability Research. “Leading evidence-based practice guidelines for lower back pain recommend against early MRI except for ‘red flag’ indications, such as severe trauma, infection or cancer. These guidelines suggest that, following a month trial of conservative treatment, MRI may then be considered if symptoms of sciatica/radiculopathy persist, but only to guide epidural steroid injections, or to provide more information if surgery is being considered. Because of a lack of evidence for improving care, the guidelines recommend that MRI is not indicated for non-radicular, non-specific back pain.”  

Barbara S. Webster, lead author of the Research Institute’s studies said, “Adhering to guideline recommendations lessens this cascade effect of medical care where potentially unnecessary tests or procedures drive-up medical costs without evidence that they help to effectively treat the pain or shorten disability duration.”

In a prior study using a smaller sample of the same work-related lower back pain claims, early MRI recipients had far higher medical costs than non-MRI claims, averaging more than $12,000 higher. Early MRI recipients were also three times more likely to remain on disability than those who didn’t have MRI, even after controlling for a number of factors that influence these outcomes.      

Ms. Webster added, “The results of these studies provide additional evidence to promote shared decision-making conversations between providers and patients to help patients choose care that is supported by evidence and avoid tests and procedures that do not contribute to better outcomes.”

The use of early imaging is one of many indicators for measuring appropriate clinical practices of Liberty Mutual’s network physicians and is used in the company’s Provider Performance Evaluation as part of its overall utilization review efforts to better ensure that injured workers are receiving high-quality and appropriate care.

“Clinical quality recommendations such as those developed by the National Committee for Quality Assurance and the American Board of Internal Medicine have emphasized for years that overuse of imaging does not represent good care for low back pain,” said Dr. William Gaines, associate national medical director, Liberty Mutual Commercial Insurance Claims. “These studies confirm that following best practices produces better outcomes for patients at lower costs.”

Editors and reporters who wish to learn more about the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety’s studies’ findings may contact Christopher Goetcheus at 774-279-5923.            

About Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety

Owned and operated by Liberty Mutual Insurance, the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety ( is an internationally recognized safety and health research facility. Through laboratory and field-based investigations, the Research Institute seeks to advance scientific, business-relevant knowledge in workplace and highway safety and disability. Research findings, published in the open, peer reviewed literature, are shared with the worldwide health and safety community and are often used to develop recommendations, guidelines, and interventions to help reduce injury and disability.

About Liberty Mutual Insurance

Liberty Mutual Insurance helps preserve and protect the things people earn and own and build and cherish.  Keeping this promise means we are there when our policyholders throughout the world need us most.

In business since 1912, and headquartered in Boston, Mass., today Liberty Mutual is a diversified insurer with operations in 30 countries around the world.  The company is the third largest property and casualty insurer in the U.S. based on 2013 direct premium written as reported by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Liberty Mutual is ranked 76th on the Fortune 100 list of largest corporations in the U.S. based on 2013 revenue.  As of December 31, 2013, Liberty Mutual Insurance had $121.2 billion in consolidated assets, $102.2 billion in consolidated liabilities, and $38.5 billion in annual consolidated revenue.

Liberty employs more than 50,000 people in approximately 900 offices throughout the world, and offers a wide range of insurance products and services, including personal automobile, homeowners, accident & health, commercial automobile, general liability, property, surety, workers compensation, group disability, group life, specialty lines, reinsurance, individual life and annuity products. You can learn more by visiting



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