Physicians frequently are asked to assess work ability in individuals with low back pain (LBP) who also require an impairment rating. Physicians may be tempted to base their decisions about the individual's work ability on spinal anatomy/diagnosis as established by imaging, because that may seem objective. However, a review of the current medical literature consistently demonstrates that anatomical abnormalities identified on imaging do not predict functional ability. Rather, recent studies have demonstrated a strong association between the number of symptoms and functional status, on the one hand, and the lack of correlation between findings on imaging and symptoms, on the other hand. For example, a systematic review by Mayo Clinic physicians of 33 published studies in which 3110 asymptomatic adults were imaged using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed that, in middle age when most problematic back pain problems present, roughly half of asymptomatic adults had disc bulges, roughly one-third had disc protrusions, and roughly one-quarter had annular fissures. The authors of the present study also review related studies regarding low back pain and conclude that current scientific knowledge suggests that imaging alone is not useful in predicting function or in assessing future risk. Degenerative changes on imaging are not a sound basis for work restrictions because they do not correlate with risk or capacity.

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