Should You Have Physical Therapy Before an MRI? (or vise versa)

We work with many patients across our five offices, and one topic that comes up fairly often is the topic of MRI’s and physical therapy. Patients wonder if they should get an MRI, and if so, should they get one before or after physical therapy?

MRI’s are a very valuable tool for examining your organs, internal tissues, and skeletal system. That being said:

It is not always required to have an MRI before physical therapy, since it’s a diagnostic tool. If a provider you’re working with is able to accurately diagnose your issues, then it’s unlikely that you’ll need an MRI.

The value of physical therapy is that it’s a non-invasive way to rehabilitate physical issues without having to revert to more expensive surgeries or diagnostic tools. Therefore, it’s often advisable to try physical therapy before an MRI, if your provider recommends it.

Why trying physical therapy first might be a good idea

If you’re experiencing persistent pain or discomfort that has led you to consider getting an MRI, you may benefit from getting physical therapy first – physical therapy often works as a lower-cost option with long-term benefits.

We recommend discussing this with your provider before diving into a full treatment plan, but we have seen many times in the past that patients save money and save time by trying the less expensive and invasive treatment option first.

Provided you’re completing your home exercise programs, it’s typical that our patients feel so much better by the end of their course of treatment that they simply continue their home exercise programs and get better on their own.

How much physical therapy before MRI?

Typically, physical therapy prescriptions stipulate 2-3 times per week for 6-12 weeks. If you’re planning to give physical therapy a try before having an MRI, we recommend completing the entire course of treatment in order to give it a full shot.

It’s common in physical therapy for things to feel a bit worse before they get better. This is because we’re working an injured and/or underworked part of the body with our treatments. Sometimes some early aggravation to the affected joint or condition surfaces early in the treatment.

Patients often begin to feel significantly better in their second or third month of physical therapy.

Therefore, we recommend that if you decide to try physical therapy first, you stick with it for the full 6-12 weeks before changing course. However, if there’s a significant change in your condition during the course of treatment, you can always go get the MRI anyway.

Should you get an MRI before physical therapy?

Sometimes, in cases where an injury is extremely complex or multiple injuries are affecting one another, getting an MRI first can be the best course of action. This can also be helpful if you’ve tried physical therapy in the past, but found that physical therapy didn’t work due to misdiagnosis.

If you’re wondering if you should get an MRI before physical therapy, discuss this concern with your physician (or physical therapist, if you already have one). They’ll help you understand whether or not an MRI would be helpful in your case.

In general:

  • An MRI is most often helpful in complex cases, since it can offer precise details about the nature and extent of the injuries.
  • An MRI is often less helpful in cases where the injury is a straightforward single-joint injury that needs basic rehabilitation for strength and to rebuild mobility.

Skilled physical therapists can evaluate and treat such conditions effectively, often without the immediate need for imaging.

Ultimately, the choice should be a collaborative one, involving thorough discussions with your healthcare team, weighing the pros and cons, and considering factors like your medical history, symptoms, and cost considerations.

How to get an MRI without physical therapy

Getting an MRI without undergoing physical therapy is certainly possible, but it typically depends on the nature of your medical condition, your healthcare provider’s recommendations, and your insurance coverage.

To initiate the process, the first step is to consult with a healthcare professional, such as your primary care physician or a specialist, to discuss your symptoms and concerns. They will evaluate your condition and determine whether an MRI is warranted as an initial diagnostic tool or if other diagnostic methods should be explored first.

If your healthcare provider deems an MRI necessary, they can provide you with a referral or prescription for the procedure. It’s important to keep in mind that insurance companies often require prior authorization for MRI scans to ensure they are medically necessary.

This means that your healthcare provider may need to provide detailed information justifying the need for the MRI before it is approved by your insurance. If cost is a concern, it’s advisable to check with your insurance provider beforehand to understand your coverage and potential out-of-pocket expenses.

In cases where insurance coverage is unavailable or limited, you may explore self-pay options at imaging centers or out-of-network coverage, although these can be relatively expensive.

Ultimately, the ability to obtain an MRI without physical therapy depends on your specific situation and the guidance of your healthcare provider.

If physical therapy is required before an MRI?

Dealing with insurance requirements for physical therapy before an MRI can be a frustrating experience for many patients. If insurance wants physical therapy before an MRI, discuss this with your provider to order an MRI.

In some cases, they may request that individuals undergo physical therapy as an initial step before approving an MRI. While this can be seen as a cost-saving measure, recognize that not all medical conditions warrant physical therapy as a prerequisite for an MRI. The decision should ideally be based on medical necessity, as determined by your healthcare provider.

If your healthcare professional believes that an MRI is the most appropriate and timely diagnostic tool for your condition, they can work with your insurance company to provide the necessary documentation and justification for the MRI without the need for mandatory physical therapy.

Advocating for your health and collaborating with your healthcare team can help navigate these insurance requirements and ensure you receive the most suitable care for your specific medical needs.

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