September 8, 2023
September 8, 2023

What’s a Cervical MRI Scan and When Do You Need One?

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What’s a Cervical MRI Scan and When Do You Need One?

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.

What’s the Anatomy and Function of the Cervical Spine?

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.

What Is a Cervical Spine MRI Scan?

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. 

What Can a Cervical MRI Scan Detect?

Cervical MRI: man and woman jogging together

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:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis: An autoimmune arthritic condition that can affect the cervical spine and its surrounding soft tissues
  • Cervical canal stenosis: Spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spinal canal at the area of the neck
  • Congenital abnormalities: Birth defects of the cervical spine, which may include scoliosis or other spinal deformities
  • Degenerative disc disease: Commonly seen in older people and often associated with arthritis
  • Herniated discs: A condition when vertebral discs slip from their position, leading to significant pain
  • Infections: These could be abscesses or osteomyelitis (infection of the bone)
  • Multiple sclerosis: An autoimmune condition of the CNS (central nervous system) that can cause many symptoms affecting coordination, muscle weakness, and fatigue
  • Spinal aneurysms: Blood vessel abnormalities in the cervical spine that can lead to bleeding
  • Spinal cord compression: Pressure on the spinal cord that can lead to serious symptoms like weakness, difficulty walking, and loss of bladder control
  • Spondylolisthesis: A condition of the vertebra when one becomes displaced or out of alignment with the adjoining vertebrae
  • Spondylosis: A common condition of the vertebral discs when they show wear and tear with age and repetitive movement
  • Traumatic spinal cord injury: This can happen due to trauma, such as a car accident, where blunt force can injure the spinal cord
  • Tumors of the spine or spinal cord: Various tumors, both cancerous and noncancerous, can be found in the spine or within the spinal canal itself

Is Cervical MRI Safe?

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).

What Can I Expect on the Day of a Cervical Spine MRI Scan?

Cervical MRI: doctor holding her patient’s hand

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. 

Why Am I Being Referred For a Cervical MRI Scan?

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:

  • Arm numbness or weakness
  • Shoulder pain
  • Difficulty turning the head, or loss of cervical range of motion

More concerning symptoms that may indicate a more emergent scan include:

  • Fever or night sweats
  • Trouble breathing
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

Ezra MRI: A Powerful Tool for Early Detection

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.