CF 047: Do Disc Herniations On An MRI Worsen When Sitting Or Standing (PART ONE)?

Today we’re going to talk about those MRI’s you get back that show 4mm disc herniations in the low back. OK, that doesn’t sound too bad right? But what happens to the number when a patient comes out of the MRI tube and sits up, stands up, or bends over and lifts something? Let’s talk about it. 

But first, here’s that bumper music


Integrating Chiropractors

OK, we are back. Welcome to the podcast today, I’m Dr. Jeff Williams and I’m your host for the Chiropractic Forward podcast.  


You have toppled into Episode #47 just like a big huge Jenga game. 


Let’s talk a bit about the DACO program: this weekend, I will be headed back to Dallas, TX to attend another 10 hours of the DACO program. This class will again be with Dr. James Lehman, the man, the myth, the legend.

After this weekend, I’ll have 40 of the 50 live hours needed and I’ve been chipping away at the online hours in the meantime. I’ve got about 20 done so far so I’ll be sitting at roughly 60 of the 300 hours needed. 

Yes, that sucks when I look at it through one lens but is pretty dang cool when I look at it through another. It’s been an excellent journey so far. 

It’s not just orthopedics. Which I love. There is stuff I don’t love like the different forms of arthritis. I’m not a big fan of neurology-like refreshers on vestibular nuclei, spinothalamic, corticospinal tracts, and all of that stuff.

It’d be nice to separate that and leave it for the Neuro Diplomates but it doesn’t work that way. It’s a lot. And at only 60 hours in, I’m wondering how on Earth I’m going to be able to remember it all enough to pass a big ol’ hairy test on it but, I started it and I’m going to finish it pass or fail. 

Between you and me though, I have an A in the class so far so I plan on passing the thing!

At The Office

Front desk…..well…’s still a thing for us. If you’ve been following along, you know what’s up. If you haven’t, then you know that I was thinking we finally had the spot filled. That is until we didn’t. So, starting over. Boo…. What a tough time it is these days. 

I’d rather get a colonoscopy or have a joint drained than keep dealing with this but…. we keep on keepin’ on, don’t we? As if there is any other option outside of closing shop and going on the road as a speaker….. Hey, wait a minute….

Meat n’ Taters

Alright, enough of all that. Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of what we do here. 

You either are a patient or you sent a patient to get an MRI on the low back because you think they are showing signs of having disc herniations pain is running out into the leg, and you want to take a look at it. We have enough here that I need to split this into a two-part podcast. 

We don’t want these dudes getting too long or you’ll look at the length and skip the whole damn thing. We’re busy after all aren’t we? You have to be really good to get me into a 45-minute podcast and I …..may not be that good. Lol. 

The Question

As I mentioned in the intro: what happens the measured herniation when a patient comes out of laying down in the tube for the MRI and then sits up, stands up, or bends over and lifts something?

Some of you probably think the answer is obvious but I’m going to suggest to you that it is not obvious. Here’s how I know for sure. I run in medical circles to some extent.

I’m friends with radiologists, two heart surgeons, a vascular surgeon, a cardiologist, several ER/Urgent care docs, and countless Nurse Pracs and PAs as well as PT’s. 

I haven’t asked them all because there’s no reason to but the radiologists for sure and a couple of the others…..I asked them the same question. What happens to disc herniations when the patient applied weight-bearing to the disc herniations?

I was told universally that, while they didn’t know for sure, they thought the disc was so strong that really nothing would happen. Certainly nothing significant. 

The radiologists felt this was too and I just wasn’t satisfied. I just knew something had to happen. And something important at that. So, what does a research nerd such as myself do when they don’t have solid answers? They start a search for research. 

The key was to find the right keywords. If I recall, they were “axial loaded MRI” or something very similar to that. I believe that was the key to the kingdom. 

Anyway, I want to go through some papers I found on disc herniations and axial loads and we’ll see what we find. 

The Research

Let’s start here, if you know a little anatomy and a little McKenzie stuff, you know the disc can be likened to a stout bag of water. Meaning, if I push one side down, the opposite side will “bulk up.” The gym rats call it “swole” I believe. 

If I push a different side down, the other will push up. It reminds me of why I can’t go camping. First, I require central heat and air and plumbing. Secondly, I’m 6’4” and 280 or so depending on how much fun I’ve been having lately. If my much smaller wife and I try to sleep on an air mattress, I go to the ground while she is sleeping on a mound of air. 

It just doesn’t work for us which works for me. I’m no camper people. 

Anyway, this knowledge, if you didn’t already have it, will come in handy here in a little bit. 

Also, I hope you’ll go to our show notes for the diagram demonstrating the different amounts of pressure on your low back depending on how you are positioned. For this study, I am told the researchers actually placed pressure sensors into the patients’ discs and had them do these moves to find the differenced. 

Can you even imagine doing that or volunteering to do that? Holy smokes. 

Anyway, laying down shows 25 kg of pressure in your low back discs. Standing places 100kg on them while sitting straight up is 140kg. Now, the big ‘no-no’s’….standing and bending forward with something of substance in your hands, 220kg and the daddy of them all, sitting bent forward with weights in the hands. 275 kg. 

No weights, bending forward at the waist and sitting slumped. How would they affect those discs? 

Now,  let’s get to the first paper, it’s paper #1 titled “Upright magnetic resonance imaging of the lumbar spine: Back and Pain Radiculopathy.” It was published in the Journal of Craniovertebral Junction & Spine in 2016[1].

They were testing MRI results lying down as well as when seated. 

How They Did It

  • 17 participants
  • 10 were asymptomatic
  • 7 had symptoms of radiculopathy
  • MRIs were done on each in the seated position

What They Found

  • Mid-disc width accounted for 56% of the maximum foramen with in the symptomatic group.
  • Mid-disc width was over 63% of the maximum foramen within asymptomatic volunteers.
  • Disc bulging was 48% larger in the symptomatic group.
  • The measurements of the foramen were smaller in the symptomatic group.

Wrap It Up

The information suggests that MRIs performed in the upright seated position can be useful in the diagnosis process because it is better able to distinguish important differences among the asymptomatic and symptomatic. Especially in regards to the size of the intervertebral foramen.

Then we have this study by Madsen, et. al[2]. called ““The effect of body position and axial load on spinal canal morphology: an MRI study of central spinal stenosis.”

In this paper, the authors say that axial loading of the spine does not necessarily cause any significant changes to the disc itself, but that the simple act of having more extension in the spine was a determining factor as to how much space remained in the dural sac surrounding the spinal cord or cauda equina.

I wanted to be fair so I included this study. It suggests the discs play a very small part in the process but, as you will see from approximately 10 other papers we’ll discuss, this sort of finding or thought process is very much in the minority.

See…..I’m fair. I don’t want to cherry-pick. 

Here we have one by Hansson et. al.[3] called “The narrowing of the lumbar spinal canal during loaded MRI: the effects of the disc and ligamentum flavum.”

How They Did It

  • There were 24 participants in the study.
  • The lumbar (low back) spines were examined by MRI while lying down supine (face up).
  • Then the study was repeated with roughly half of their weight loaded to the spine axially.
  • The measurements were through the cross-sectional areas of the spinal canal as well as the ligamentum flavum, the thickness of the ligamentum flavum, the posterior bulge of the disc and the intervertebral angle.

What They Found

  • The axial loading did, in fact, decrease the cross-sectional size of the spinal canal.
  • Increased bulge or thickening of the ligamentum flavum was to blame for 50%-85% of the decrease in the spinal canal size.

Wrap It Up

The authors concluded that it appears the ligamentum flavum, not the disc, played a dominant role in reducing the size of the spinal canal on axially loaded spines for those with stenosis.

Next up is Choy et. al. called “Magnetic resonance imaging of the lumbosacral spine under compression.” This paper reveals that sitting MRI imagined exists at Harvard and Zurich. Since seated MRI is so limited in regards to availability, the authors were looking to be able to compress the spine in other ways to duplicate the pressures found in someone that is seated.

They built a plywood contraption that had the ability to fit into a standard MRI machine and subject the patient to similar compressive forces. Interesting I thought. I’d love to see this contraption. 

What They Found

They were able to reproduce the symptoms in 50% of the patients through the compression machine and they were able to reproduce  “augmentation” or accentuation of the disc herniation when the compressive force was initiated. Meaning, simulated axial compression herniated the disc further. 

Man, we’re scootin now folks, 

This one is by Nowicki, et. al[4]. called “Occult lumbar lateral spinal stenosis in neural foramina subjected to physiologic loading,”

These authors wanted to see how different positioning of the trunk affects the relationships of the bones and discs in regards to the neural structures in the same anatomic region. They also wanted to find out how disc degeneration responds to axial loading.

What They Found

The average findings were that extension, flexion, lateral bending, and rotation show contact or compression of the spinal nerve by the ligamentum flavum or disc in 18% of the neural foramina. 

Extension loading produced the most cases of nerve root contact. Disc degeneration significantly increased the prevalence of pain stenosis.

Wrap It Up

The authors concluded, “The study supports the concept of dynamic spinal stenosis; that is, intermittent stenosis of the neural foramina. Flexion, extension, lateral bending, and axial rotation significantly changed the anatomic relationships of the ligamentum flavum and intervertebral disc to the spinal nerve roots.”

So, we’re starting to paint a picture here I think and starting to show that positioning and weight-bearing does indeed have an effect on the disc herniations, the ligamentum flavum, and the neural structures present at each level. 

Here’s the last one we’ll cover this week and it’s called “The diagnostic effect from axial loading of the lumbar spine during computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging in patients with degenerative disorders.” It was authored by Willen et. al[5].

Why They Did It

The authors stated goal in this paper were to find out if there was any real value in imaging patients that had axial loads (simulated weight-bearing) applied in cases of degenerative spines.

How They Did It

  • A device was used to induce a load on the low back before imaging.
  • 172 patients were examined with compression applied.
  • 50 of those were imaged with CTs.
  • 122 of those subjects were imaged with MRIs.
  • Any changes in the major anatomy of the regions were noted.

What They Found

“Additional valuable information was found” in 50 of the original 172 participants. “A narrowing of the lateral recess causing compression of the nerve root was found at 42 levels in 35 patients at axial loading.”

Wrap It Up

There is certainly and frequently additional information that can be gathered for diagnostic purposes when the imaging is done with weight-bearing loads applied. This included those with neurogenic claudication as a result of stenosis but also sciatica.

We have a painting forming up here folks. I did the underpainting this week and we’ve got it ready for the finishing touches next week so stick around and make sure you’re connected with us. 

We do that through our weekly newsletter to let you know when the next episode goes live. You can get on that at 

You can also find us on Facebook on our Chiropractic Forward Page but, if you’d like to take it a step further, you can join us at our Chiropractic Forward Group where we post the papers from each episode and maybe even spark up a discussion about them if you like. 

The Message

Before you leave us today, I want you to know with absolute certainty that when Chiropractic is at its best, you can’t beat the risk vs reward ratio because spinal pain is a mechanical pain and responds better to mechanical treatment instead of chemical treatments.

The literature is clear: research and experience show that, in 80%-90% of headaches, neck, and back pain, patients get good to excellent results when compared to usual medical care and it’s safe, less expensive, and decreases chances of surgery and disability.

It’s done conservatively and non-surgically with little time requirement or hassle for the patient. If done preventatively going forward, we can likely keep it that way while raising overall health! At the end of the day, patients have the right to the best treatment that does the least harm and THAT’S Chiropractic, folks.

Contact Us

Send us an email at dr dot williams at and let us know what you think of our show or tell us your suggestions for future episodes. Feedback and constructive criticism is a blessing and so are subscribes and excellent reviews on iTunes and other podcast services. Y’all know how this works by now so help if you don’t mind taking a few seconds to do so.

Being the #1 Chiropractic podcast in the world would be pretty darn cool. 

We can’t wait to connect with you again next week. From the Chiropractic Forward Podcast flight deck, this is Dr. Jeff Williams saying upward, onward, and forward. 


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About the author:

Dr. Jeff Williams – Chiropractor in Amarillo, TX, Chiropractic Advocate, Author, Entrepreneur, Educator, Businessman, Marketer, and Healthcare Blogger & VloggerBibliography

1. Nguyen HS, e.a., Upright magnetic resonance imaging of the lumbar spine: Back pain and radiculopathy. J Craniovertebr Junction Spine, 2016. 7(1): p. 31-7.

2. Madsen R, e.a., The effect of body position and axial load on spinal canal morphology: an MRI study of central spinal stenosis. Spine (Phila Pa 1976), 2008. 33(1): p. 61-7.

3. Hansson T, e.a., The narrowing of the lumbar spinal canal during loaded MRI: the effects of the disc and ligamentum flavum. Eur Spine J, 2009. 18(5): p. 679-86.

4. Nowicki BH, e.a., Occult lumbar lateral spinal stenosis in neural foramina subjected to physiologic loading. AJNR Am J Neuroraiol, 1996. 17(9): p. 1605-14.

5. Willen J, e.a., The diagnostic effect from axial loading of the lumbar spine during computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging in patients with degenerative disorders. Spine (Phila Pa 1976), 2001. 26(23): p. 2607-14.


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