Making Sense of MRI Results

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Traditionally, reports from tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have been written by radiologists to be read by referring doctors—not for patients to read and try to understand on their own. But with the advent of online medical records and patient portals, more and more patients have direct access to the reports, often even before a doctor has had a chance to talk with them about the results.

If you’ve had an MRI for lower back pain and your results show up on your online account, you’ll find that a radiological report can be confusing and even alarming.

To get a sense of how tough the reports are for patients to decipher, researchers reviewed 110 lumbar spine radiology reports, using five widely used “readability” scores.

According to the researchers, who reported their findings in 2019 in the American Journal of Radiology, the average readability was above the 12th-grade reading level—a level deemed “very confusing” for most people. (By way of comparison, both the American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health recommend a readability score at the 6th-grade level for written patient information.)

Ideally, doctors should explain the results first, before patients have access to their reports. But that’s not always possible. If your results are posted online before your doctor has had a chance to explain them, don’t worry if you’re confused by what you read. Arrange to discuss the results with your doctor.