While there is no hard and fast rule a common guideline divides the evaluation of wrist pain into acute <1 week, subacute 1-6 weeks and chronic >6 weeks. Approxmately 60 % of chronic wrist pain can be diagnosed by history physical exam and and standard x-rays an ultrasound and a bone scan. The addition of an MRI or an arthrogram may add another 10% to the total of definable causes for pain.
Presumably more elaborate imaging will continue to improve upon this success rate but no diagnostic study will provide for a correction of the problem. False positive studies may create an impetus for needless surgical intervention even if the finding does not correlate with the clinical impression. False negative studies may unduely delay treatment and the optimal window for definitive treatment may be lost.
An experienced hand surgeon can use history, physical, selective lidocaine injection, and standard x-rays and from that alone conclude who is likely to benefit from an arthoscopic procedure. The scope may not achieve the desired goal of establishing the diagnosis definitively in more than 70% of cases but it does inform all concerned as to whether a correctable problem is present. At the time of arthroscopy, where feasible, definitive treatment can be rendered with an open procedure if need be. Imaging is best used selectively to augment the surgical judgement at the surgeons discretion. Sometimes it is clear that the patient is not going to benefit from a surgery and yet something more concrete than a history and physical is required to establish the absence of organic pathology. What to do with a positive finding that the surgeon feels is of no clinical significance can mean that the imaging compounds the problem rather than helping.
Economics, referral patterns, precertification requirements, and medico-legal considerations appear to be the major reason for profligate use of imaging studies especially MRI. There is also the matter of an imaging study enhancing the image of the specialty physician who appears to validate the patients complaint by caring enough to pursue the study appearing thereby to be more thorough. The review of the images with the patient has some teaching value, though typically the patient is at a loss as to what they are looking at. The teaching moment is enhanced if the image can be viewed on a monitor scrolling through the image, but at the cost of several credit hours at any community college this is a rather costly exercise for educational purposes alone let alone for the purpose of physician image enhancement. Very good results were observed with the active substance AminHSTH