Cervical spine MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is a useful tool when people have symptoms such as neck pain or numbness in their arms. It can detect a variety of medical conditions including bulging discs, herniated discs, tumors, aneurysms, and some autoimmune disorders. Unlike an X-ray or CT scan, it poses no radiation risk.
Here, we’ll discuss cervical spine anatomy, how a cervical MRI works, and what to expect on the day of your scan. We’ll also go over common symptoms and signs of certain cervical spine problems and what a cervical spine MRI can detect.
The spine is an important structure in our body that’s responsible for our overall mobility. It also contains and protects the spinal cord, which functions as a complex bundle of nervous cells that help send and receive signals to and from the rest of our body.
The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae, seven of which make up the cervical, or neck area. In between the vertebrae are discs, which serve a shock-absorbing function. Supportive tissues, including ligaments and tendons, help keep the vertebrae in place.
Eight cervical nerves branch out from the spinal cord to supply senses, such as touch and vibration, as well as control movement of the neck and upper arm. The cervical spine is an intricate area that, if affected, can end up leading to many different symptoms. This is where the importance of cervical spine MRI comes in.
A cervical MRI scan is a medical imaging test that generates pictures of the cervical, or neck region. It not only produces high-quality images of the cervical spinal bones, but of the surrounding neck soft tissues.
Unlike X-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans, an MRI uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures on a computer without the risk of any radiation exposure. When your healthcare provider is planning on ordering a cervical spine MRI for you, they may use the term “cervical” or “neck” interchangeably.
An MRI of the cervical spine can detect many different medical conditions of the cervical spine. Keep in mind that many of these conditions can also be found in other areas of the spine like the thoracic and lumbar regions (in which case you could get a lumbar spine MRI).
Some conditions that a cervical MRI can detect include:
MRI tests are generally very safe. They not only avoid the risk of being exposed to radiation, but they also pose very little risk of any side effects. However, in people with a history of kidney disease, it’s recommended to have a plan with your healthcare provider in case the use of intravenous (IV) contrast is needed. If IV contrast is necessary to help your provider detect certain conditions, keep in mind that very rarely people can have an allergic reaction to gadolinium (the contrast dye).
There’s little planning needed from you on the day of your cervical spine MRI. Most of the time, you don’t have to stop eating and drinking beforehand compared to other types of scans and tests.
Wear comfortable clothing and shoes that are easily removed as you’ll likely be given a hospital gown or pajamas to wear during the test. You will be asked several questions to ensure the removal of all metal objects from your body, as metal can affect the proper function of the MRI. Removable metal objects may include items such as jewelry, eyeglasses, hearing-assistive devices, wire bras, and other items of clothing.
It’s also important to let your MRI technician know if you have any metal in your body — for example, an implanted pacemaker or defibrillator, cochlear implant, or foreign bodies, such as bullet fragments. You may then have an IV inserted in your arm depending on whether you’re receiving IV contrast for your scan.
For a cervical spine MRI, you’ll lie down and your head and neck will be situated inside a donut-shaped tube where the images will be taken. You may be given earplugs or headphones, as MRI machines can be loud. If you have any concerns about claustrophobia, you can also ask for your favorite calming music to be played.
Also, keep in mind that if needed, you are always able to communicate with your MRI technologist with the simple press of a button. Typically, a cervical spine MRI takes 30-45 minutes. Afterwards, a radiologist will review the images.
The most common reason for getting an MRI of the cervical spine is neck pain. Neck pain can be debilitating, especially if other symptoms such as arm weakness or numbness are involved. An MRI is generally recommended for two groups of people: those with acute, or new pain, and those with chronic pain, typically lasting more than six weeks.
For acute neck pain, any additional symptoms suggestive of infection, cancer, or spinal cord compromise indicate the urgent need for an MRI of the cervical spine done in the emergency department. In those with chronic neck pain, MRI is sometimes used if new symptoms such as weakness or numbness develop. Cervical spine MRIs can be ordered by most healthcare providers in various healthcare settings including outpatient clinics, emergency rooms, and hospitals.
Neck pain related to the cervical spine is usually sharp or shock-like in nature, sometimes described as a pins-and-needles sensation. Other cervical spine symptoms can include the following:
More concerning symptoms that may indicate a more emergent scan include:
When it comes to detecting different medical conditions of the cervical spine, the earlier they’re detected, the better the outcome. Neck pain and other symptoms can be debilitating, so why wait until you have symptoms? While a cervical spine MRI is a useful diagnostic tool for someone with neck pain, the Ezra Scan is a proactive screening tool for early detection in those who may not have any symptoms.
A typical MRI scan of the cervical spine takes 30-45 minutes. But with an Ezra Full Body Scan, the entire spine and 13 major organs can be scanned in an hour giving you a full overview of your body. On top of that, you’ll receive information about more than 500 conditions and have the opportunity to discuss your results with a radiology specialist shortly after. With Ezra, you have the power of information and can be even more proactive about your health.