The spine is our body's central support structure. It keeps us upright and connects the different parts of our skeleton to each other. Although the spine is made up of a chain of bones, it is flexible due to elastic ligaments and spinal disks.
An MRI of the spine can be done on the cervical, thoracic or lumbar spine. This exam images the anatomy of the spine including the vertebrae, disks, spinal cord and nerves.
Because there is no ionizing radiation used in an MRI exam, Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a very popular tool in the medical community. In addition, MRI is a totally painless exam and has no known side effects.
When would I get a Spine MRI?
Your medical provider may recommend an MRI of the spine in order evaluate:
- spine anatomy and alignment
- birth defects in the vertebrae or spinal cord
- trauma or injury to the bone, disc, ligament or spinal cord
- disc and joint disease
- severe lower back pain and sciatica (back pain radiating into lower leg)
- compression or inflammation of spinal cord and nerves
- infection of the vertebrae, discs, spinal cord or its coverings (meninges)
- tumors in the vertebrae, spinal cord, nerves or surrounding soft tissues.
MRI of the spine is also used to help plan procedures such as decompression of a pinched nerve, spinal fusion or steroid injections.
What Will I Experience?
MRI exams are painless. However, some patients find it challenging to remain still. Others may feel closed-in (claustrophobia) or anxious while in a conventional closed MRI scanner. The scanner can be noisy. Nervous or anxious patients may be offered a mild sedative.
A patient may also ask their medical provider to prescribe a mild sedative to take before the exam. If a mild sedative is taken, the patient will need to have someone drive them to our center and take them home once the exam is done.
It is normal for the area of your body being imaged to feel slightly warm. It is important that you remain perfectly still while the images are being recorded, which is typically only a few seconds to a few minutes at a time. You will know when images are being recorded because you will hear tapping or thumping sounds when the coils that generate the radiofrequency pulses are activated. You will be able to relax between imaging sequences, but will be asked to maintain your position as much as possible.
You will usually be alone in the exam room during the MRI procedure. However, the technologist will be able to see, hear and speak with you at all times using a two-way intercom.
You will be offered earplugs or a headset to reduce the noise of the MRI, which produces loud thumping and humming noises during imaging. MRI scanners are air-conditioned and well-lit. Some of our scanners have music you can listen to during the test.
If you have an exam that requires an injection of intravenous contrast material, it is normal to feel coolness and a flushing sensation for a minute or two following the injection. The intravenous needle may cause you some discomfort when it is inserted and once it is removed, you may experience some bruising. There is also a very small chance of irritation of your skin at the site of the IV tube insertion.
Typically, this type of MRI exam will take approximately 30 to 45 minutes to complete.