When Dr. Albert needs detailed images of both the vertebrae and the surrounding soft tissues, he may order an MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, of your spine. Spinal MRIs can provide information on the structure and positioning of the vertebrae, help Dr. Albert assess if there is a spinal injury, help evaluate nerve and disc problems, and other uses.
Because spinal MRIs use radio waves and a magnetic field, the patient doesn’t receive any radiation.
Magnetic resonance imaging uses a powerful magnetic field, radiofrequency pulses, and a computer to produce detailed images of the spine. You’ve probably heard of people having MRIs for knee or shoulder injuries, as they allow excellent views of the soft tissues. But these noninvasive imaging tests are also highly effective when dealing with the spine. Because they provide detailed images of both the vertebrae, the discs, and the nerves, MRIs are the most sensitive imaging test available for the spine.
What is a spinal MRI?
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What are the common uses for a spinal MRI?
Dr. Albert may use a spinal MRI to assess or detect these aspects of the spine:
- Spine anatomy and alignment
- Trauma injury to the bone, discs, ligaments, or spinal cord
- Disc and joint disease
- Compression or inflammation of the spinal cord or nerves
- Infection of the vertebrae, discs, spinal cord, or the covering of the spinal cord
- Tumors in the vertebrae, spinal cord, nerves, or surrounding soft tissues
- Birth defects in the vertebrae or spinal cord
How Accurate Are Spinal MRIs?
Spinal MRIs don’t differentiate between painful areas and non-painful areas. For instance, a patient’s spine and discs may look fine, but the patient has chronic pain in their lower back or legs. In other cases, there may be evidence of damage, yet the patient is pain free. MRIs are tools that Dr. Albert uses in combination with consideration of the patient’s symptoms and medical history. Did you have a prior back injury? He’ll perform a physical examination, including making movements to trigger painful symptoms.
MRSs provide excellent information, but they are simply one of the tools Dr. Albert uses when diagnosing a patient’s neck or back problems.
What can an MRI tell Dr. Albert about my back pain?
Dr. Albert can gather this information from your MRI:
- Spinal alignment
- Disc height and hydration
- Vertebral body configuration
- Intervertebral disc health and shape
- Spinal canal size
- Nerve compression
- Spinal cord appearance
- Changes since spine surgery
How does an MRI create its detailed imaging?
Magnetic resonance imaging creates its images by using a large magnet that stimulates the hydrogen atoms in the vertebrae, spinal sac (containing the spinal cord, nerves, and spinal fluid), supporting muscles, and ligaments.
The strong magnets accomplish this by surrounding the patient in a magnetic field. The MRI tube basically places you inside a big magnet.
When the scanning begins, these processes are going on:
- The water molecules that make up most of the human body can be thought of as very tiny bar magnets with North and South poles. When in the magnetic field, the previously arranged water molecules now line up so they are facing either North or South.
- Gradients emit an FM radio signal, which tips the lined-up water molecules away from North or South.
- When the gradient is turned off the molecules pop back to North or South and the energy required to previously tip them is given off as another FM radio wave, which is then “detected” by a listening device associated with the gradients. Different tissues emit different amounts of energy.
- A computer analyzes this new FM radio wave and digital images are constructed that represent the anatomy targeted in the MRI.
Is there any preparation for a spinal MRI?
There is little preparation required. If Dr. Albert is using a contrast material, you’ll need to tell us if you have any allergies, so we can select the material used. Otherwise, preparation is little more than leaving all jewelry and other accessories at home. Metal and electronic items are not allowed in the MRI room, as they can interfere with the magnetic field, can cause burns, or become dangerous projectiles.
MRIs are usually safe for patients with metal implants, with a few exceptions. We’ll discuss these with you if you have an implanted device.
Who reads my MRI images?
A radiologist analyzes your MRI. The radiologist then sends a signed report to Dr. Albert, who will then share the results with you.
How quickly will I get my MRI results?
This time frame varies. If the need for an MRI is an emergency, obviously the results are provided much more quickly. Complete MRI test results are usually ready for Dr. Albert in 1 to 2 days. It can take about a week for you to then get his interpretation of what’s going on with your spine.
Can People with Implanted Medical Devices Undergo MRI?
If your spinal symptoms warrant diagnostic imaging, Dr. Albert and the rest of the clinical team will work together to ensure that your scans are as safe and effective as possible. In the vast majority of cases, MRI is considered safe, even for patients with metal implants. There are, however, a few exceptions. If you have one of the following types of implanted medical devices, let the doctor know ahead of time. This may result in exploring alternative imaging modalities that would be more appropriate for you:
- Cardiac defibrillator
- Vagal nerve stimulator
- Metal coils in blood vessels
- Clips used to treat a brain aneurysm
- Cochlear implants
Keep in mind that not every type of the listed devices may pose a risk during MRI tests; only certain types may. That said, your comfort, safety, and overall health are our top priorities. If you have had any type of metallic implant please be sure to advise our team as well as the staff at the radiology facility.
Is a Spinal MRI Painful?
No. You can expect to feel comfortable, for the most part, during your MRI scan. If your symptoms are worse when lying on your back the study may be uncomfortable for you however that is related to positioning and not the study itself. If your MRI includes contrast dye, you might feel slight discomfort as the medication is injected. Some people report sensations such as coolness at the injection site, a headache, burning sensation, dizziness, difficulty breathing, or nausea after receiving the contrast dye material. If you experience any of these, you can alert your technician to receive reassurance or assistance as needed.
I'm Worried I'll Get Claustrophobic in the MRI Machine. What Can I Do?
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 12.5 percent of the population lives with claustrophobia. That said, You don't have to have been diagnosed with claustrophobia to experience anxiety-related symptoms that mimic this condition when undergoing an MRI. The reason this can happen during this diagnostic test, in particular, is that many MRI scans take place within a tube. However large the tube is, lying still on a treatment table inside of this machine can bring on heightened levels of stress.
There are several steps you can take to improve your MRI experience if you're concerned about feeling claustrophobic. Suggestions include:
- Talk to the doctor or technician ahead of time about what to expect.
- Ask any questions that you may have.
- Wear an eye mask at the time of your MRI to aid in relaxation.
- Wear earplugs to minimize the sounds of the MRI machine.
- Wear headphones so you can listen to music that feels relaxing to you.
- Bring a blanket or ask your technologist for a blanket to place over you during your scan.
- During your MRI, focus on your breathing. Some forms of breathing can soothe the vagal nerve that gets stimulated during times of stress. For example, breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four.
- Bring a support person with you.