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Spinal MRI Benefits to Get to the Bottom of Your Discomfort

Introduction to Spinal MRI

a spine model on a woodgrain background

A spinal MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a noninvasive medical imaging technique that physicians use to get detailed images of the spine and surrounding tissues. Unlike X-rays or CT scans, an MRI does not use ionizing radiation. Instead, it uses powerful magnetic fields and radio waves to generate images of the spinal structures.


During a spinal MRI, the patient lies inside the MRI machine, which contains a large magnet. This magnetic field causes the protons in the body's cells to align. Brief radio wave pulses are then sent to the area being examined, knocking the protons out of alignment. When the radio waves are turned off, the protons realign. This process produces signals that are detected by the MRI machine and converted into detailed images.


An MRI can provide clear pictures of the bones, discs, spinal cord, nerve roots, surrounding tissue, and blood vessels in the spine. It allows physicians to evaluate various spinal conditions that may be contributing to back pain, such as:


  • Herniated discs - Where disc material pushes out through a tear in the outer lining of the disc

  • Degenerative disc disease - Age-related wear and tear of the discs

  • Spinal stenosis - Narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves

  • Spondylolisthesis - When a vertebra slips out of place onto the bone below it

  • Spinal tumors or infections

  • Nerve root compression - Pressure on a spinal nerve from damaged discs, bone spurs, or other issues


By pinpointing the anatomical source of back pain symptoms, a spinal MRI can help guide treatment decisions and determine if surgery or other interventions may be warranted.


Evaluating Different Spinal Conditions

 An MRI can help doctors evaluate a variety of spinal conditions, including:


Herniated Discs

An illustration of a healthy disc and a herniated disc

A herniated disc, also called a slipped disc, occurs when a tear allows the gel-like center of an intervertebral disc to bulge out beyond the disc's outer fibrous ring. This can irritate or compress nerve roots, resulting in symptoms like pain, numbness or weakness in an arm or leg. An MRI can reveal if a herniated disc is present and determine the exact location of the herniation.


Spinal Stenosis 

Spinal stenosis refers to an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal that can put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves. An MRI can clearly show if the openings within the spine have narrowed. The images allow doctors to see exactly which areas are affected and how severely.



Spondylolisthesis occurs when one vertebra slips out of alignment and moves forward over the one below it. The condition can cause pinched nerves. An MRI helps doctors evaluate whether spondylolisthesis is present and determine its severity.


Spinal Tumors

Both malignant and benign tumors can develop along the spine. An MRI exam produces detailed images that allow doctors to detect the presence of tumors, see their exact size and location, and monitor their growth over time.



Infection of the vertebrae or discs is called osteomyelitis or discitis. MRI can identify the infected areas and help distinguish spinal infection from other possible causes of back pain.


Spinal MRI Benefits

a person in a surgical gown holing up a table with a couple vertebrae on it

Spinal MRI offers several key benefits over other imaging modalities when evaluating spinal issues:


  • More detailed than x-rays - While x-rays can detect bone abnormalities, they do not visualize soft tissue structures like muscles, ligaments, discs, or spinal cord in detail. MRI provides clear imaging of these soft tissues, allowing for more precise diagnosis of underlying issues.

  • Multi-planar imaging - MRI acquires images in axial, sagittal, and coronal planes. This allows the radiologist to evaluate the spine from all directions and angles. Issues that may not be apparent on one plane can be detected when looking at the other planes.  

  • Differentiates soft tissues - The excellent soft tissue contrast provided by MRI allows radiologists to distinguish between muscle, disc, ligament, nerve root, spinal cord, and other structures. This aids in pinpointing the exact source of a patient's symptoms.


Limitations of Spinal MRI

While spinal MRI can provide detailed images of the spine and surrounding structures, it does have some limitations to be aware of:


  • Not always necessary - For minor back pain or injuries, a spinal MRI may be overkill. Simple x-rays or a CT scan can often provide enough diagnostic information in routine cases. An MRI should be reserved for serious, unexplained, or progressive spinal conditions. 

  • Expensive - MRI scans are one of the pricier imaging tests. Without insurance, a spinal MRI can cost anywhere from $500-$3000 or more. This can make MRIs prohibitive for some patients. 

  • Can miss some issues - MRI technology, while advanced, cannot detect all spinal abnormalities. Issues with the spinal cord, nerve impingement, infections, or tiny fractures may still be missed by an MRI in some cases. 

  • Prone to false positives - The high level of detail from an MRI means radiologists sometimes spot irregularities that turn out to be benign and unimportant. This can lead to unnecessary worry and further testing. Being wary of false positives helps avoid over-treatment.


So while spinal MRIs can provide invaluable diagnostic images, they should be used judiciously. Understanding both the advantages and limitations of spinal MRI assists doctors and patients in determining when an MRI is the right choice for evaluating back pain and guiding treatment.


When a Spinal MRI May Be Recommended

a man holding his back with an illustration of his spine superimposed

A spinal MRI is often recommended for patients experiencing persistent neurological symptoms that could indicate a spinal condition. An MRI can help identify potential causes and sources of symptoms like numbness, tingling, weakness, or radiating pain in the arms or legs.


Doctors may recommend a spinal MRI prior to spinal surgery to fully evaluate the area, identify any compressions or impingements, and help plan the surgical approach. Knowing the exact location and nature of a spinal issue allows for more targeted, effective surgery.


If a patient has a history of cancer, an unexplained spinal issue, or new neurological symptoms, an MRI may be used to check for any cancerous tumors or masses along the spine. Since spinal metastases are relatively common in cancer patients, an MRI is an important diagnostic tool.


Overall, a spinal MRI provides detailed imaging that can detect, evaluate, and monitor a wide range of spinal conditions. When persistent neurological symptoms, planned spinal surgery, or potential spinal cancer are present, a spinal MRI is often an essential part of the diagnostic process and treatment planning.


Preparing for a Spinal MRI

 A spinal MRI requires some preparation to ensure you get the clearest images possible. Here are some key things to do before your spinal MRI:


  • Inform your doctor about any prior surgeries, health conditions, or medications you are taking, as some may affect the procedure or interpretation of the scan. 

  • You will likely be asked to change into a hospital gown to eliminate any metal that could distort the magnetic field used in an MRI machine. 

  • Remove all jewelry, hair accessories, glasses, hearing aids, and any other metal objects or clothing with metal fasteners before the scan. Metal can cause issues with the magnetic field. 

  • Contrast agents from prior scans can also impact image quality. Be sure to inform the technician if you've had any contrast MRIs recently. Usually you'll need to wait a certain number of days before getting another contrast scan. 

  • You will need to lie very still in the MRI machine for up to an hour, so being relaxed and comfortable is key. You may be given a mild sedative medication if you are claustrophobic or have difficulty lying still. 

  • Make sure to follow any additional preparation instructions from your doctor and the MRI technician. This helps ensure you are ready for the scan and set up for the best results.  

During the Spinal MRI

a woman in a MRI tube

Getting an MRI of your spine involves lying inside a large tube-like machine while the scanner takes images of your back. You will need to lie flat on your back, usually on a motorized table that slides into the center of the scanner. 


One of the most important things to know about getting a spinal MRI is that you will need to lie perfectly still throughout the entire scan. This is because the MRI machine is very sensitive, and even the slightest movement can make the images blurry. The scan technician will secure you in place with straps and cushions to help keep you from moving.


You'll also want to be prepared for a lot of loud banging, buzzing, and thumping noises throughout the scan. This is just the natural sound of the MRI machine operating. Some centers provide headphones with music to drown out the noise. If you get nervous in tight spaces or do not like loud noises, let your doctor know beforehand so they can give you earplugs or a mild sedative to help you relax. 


Overall, spinal MRIs usually take 30-60 minutes. Even though you'll be in a tight space and hear loud banging, the most important thing is to stay calm and hold completely still. This ensures the clearest pictures of your spine for your doctor to make an accurate diagnosis.


Reading the Results

Once the MRI scan is complete, the images are sent to a radiologist for analysis. The radiologist carefully examines the MRI images looking for any specific spinal abnormalities.


Some key things the radiologist looks for include:


  • Herniated discs - This is when a disc's jelly-like center pushes out through a tear in the disc's tough exterior. On MRI, a herniated disc may show up as a bulge, rupture or protrusion. 

  • Spinal stenosis - This is an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal that causes compression of the spinal cord or spinal nerves. MRI can show precisely where stenosis is occurring. 

  • Spinal fractures - MRI can clearly show even very subtle fractures of the vertebrae. 

  • Spinal cord tumors - MRI is an excellent way to detect spinal tumors. It can differentiate tumor tissue from normal tissue.  

The radiologist will also look for any evidence of nerve compression causing pain, numbness or weakness. They will thoroughly examine the spinal cord and nerve roots exiting the spine.


In many cases, the radiologist will compare the current MRI images to any previous spinal MRI scans the patient has had. This allows the radiologist to determine if there have been any changes over time, such as a disc herniation getting worse. It also helps monitor the effects of any treatment the patient has undergone.


The radiologist will then compile a detailed report summarizing the findings from the spinal MRI images. This report assists doctors in diagnosing spinal conditions and guiding treatment options.


Alternatives to Spinal MRI

 While spinal MRI is a preferred method for evaluating many spinal conditions, there are other imaging tests that may be used as well.


CT Scan

A CT or CAT scan is a type of X-ray that takes cross-sectional images of the spine. It can help detect problems with bones, such as fractures or arthritis. Compared to MRI, CT scans have some advantages like being faster, cheaper, and more readily available. However, they do not provide as much detail on soft tissues like discs or nerves. CT scans also expose patients to radiation, while MRIs do not.



an xray of a wrist

Plain film X-rays are one of the most basic and affordable spinal imaging tests. They can detect fractures, alignment issues, or loss of disc height. However, X-rays do not give a clear picture of soft tissues and nerves. They may be used as an initial test, with MRI or CT recommended for follow up if any issues are detected.



A discogram involves injecting dye into a spinal disc to evaluate pain originating from that disc. An X-ray, CT scan, or MRI is taken after the injection to look at the dyed disc. This test is more invasive than other imaging options. It may be considered if disc problems are strongly suspected as a source of pain and other tests have been inconclusive.


While these alternatives can be useful in certain situations, spinal MRI remains the gold standard for comprehensive evaluation of most spinal problems. It provides detailed views of all types of soft tissue and nerves without radiation exposure. Talk to your doctor about which spinal imaging tests are appropriate for your particular symptoms and condition.



a stack of blocks with the phrase "thank you for your attention?

Spinal MRIs play an important role in evaluating spinal issues and diagnosing the cause of back pain. This advanced imaging technique allows doctors to get a detailed look at the vertebrae, intervertebral discs, spinal cord and nerve roots.


An MRI can detect problems like herniated discs, pinched nerves, spinal tumors, infections, fractures and spinal stenosis. It provides high resolution images that detect even small abnormalities without exposing patients to radiation.


While spinal MRIs have limitations like high costs and the possibility of false positive findings, they remain one of the best tools for understanding spinal anatomy and detecting issues. When used appropriately, spinal MRIs provide invaluable insights that can lead to accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plans.


For those suffering from debilitating back pain without a clear cause, a spinal MRI may provide the clarification needed to get relief. Though just one tool among many, MRIs play an integral role in evaluating spinal issues. When combined with a full medical history and physical examination, spinal MRIs help doctors puzzle out even the most complex back problems.

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