August 25, 2023
August 25, 2023

Lumbar Spine MRI: What You Need to Know

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Lumbar Spine MRI: What You Need to Know

If you’ve been suffering from lower back pain for a while, your healthcare provider may have ordered a lumbar spine MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test. But you might be wondering what this procedure entails.

Here, we’ll answer your questions about lumbar spine MRIs and how they work. We’ll also explain what conditions this type of imaging technique can identify and how doctors can use the results to better treat you and your medical condition. Lastly, we’ll share tips on how to be proactive about your health and how an MRI of the lumbar spine can be part of your overall health routine.

What Is a Lumbar Spine MRI?

Magnetic resonance imaging uses magnets and radio waves to produce high-quality images of your body. An MRI machine creates a strong magnetic field designed to interact with the water molecules of your body and a computer is able to make detailed pictures of the area being scanned.

Depending on what area of your body is being scanned, you’ll be placed on a bed that moves inside the machine, which functions like a big magnet. Each MRI scan can make hundreds of images per session. MRIs are safe and pose no radiation risk at all. They also produce detailed images of whatever body part is being scanned, from bones to soft tissues. 

An MRI of the lumbar spine focuses on the lower back and shows the interior of your lower spine. Depending on what your doctor is looking for, they may order a full spine MRI, which includes the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions as well as the sacrum. 

Is An MRI Better Than Other Scans?

With its ability to produce high-quality images in different planes, or angles, a lumbar spine MRI can be much better at diagnosing certain conditions when compared to an X-ray or a computed tomography (CT) scan. 

Another benefit is that MRIs do not expose the person to radiation, whereas the same cannot be said for X-rays and CTs. While CT scans can give some information similar to MRIs, they also can expose you to more ionizing radiation than you would normally experience.

Why Should I Get an MRI of the Lumbar Spine?

The most common reason for getting a lumbar spine MRI is because of chronic lower back pain. Most people experience low back pain at some point in their lives but some suffer from low back pain chronically or long-term. MRI of the lumbar spine is usually recommended if someone has had low back pain for at least six weeks. 

Potentially dangerous symptoms indicating the need for a more urgent MRI can include:

  • Loss of feeling in the legs or buttocks
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Sudden inability to walk
  • Fever in addition to lower back symptoms
  • Recent trauma to the area

How Do You Prepare For a Lumbar Spine MRI?

Lumbar spine MRI: doctor preparing her patient for an MRI scan

A lumbar spine MRI requires little preparation. On the day of your MRI, wear comfortable clothes and shoes that are easy to remove as you may be given a gown or pajamas to change into once at the imaging facility. Sometimes, an intravenous (IV) line will be placed in your arm if IV contrast is being used in order to get specific pictures. 

Your nurse or MRI technician will go over a set of questions to ensure your safety. These may include the following:

  • Are you wearing any jewelry?
  • Do you have any piercings?
  • Do you have any metal objects in your body, such as a pacemaker or other implanted device?
  • Are you wearing any hearing-assistive devices, like hearing aids or a cochlear implant?

Certain items can have metal that we might not think about, such as hair ties, eyeglasses, bras, and other clothing items. Even a tiny amount of metal can interact with the MRI machine and can negatively affect the pictures taken. It could even affect the function of an implanted device like a pacemaker. That’s why it’s important to answer all of these questions beforehand. 

Once you’re all set, you will be given earplugs and/or headphones. An MRI machine can be pretty loud and listening to calming music can help. If you’ve had claustrophobia during previous MRI scans, please see your primary care physician for management recommendations. A lumbar spine MRI typically takes around an hour.

What Parts of the Body Does a Lumbar Spine MRI Show?

After your scan, a radiologist will look over your images. They’ll review the pictures in different views, such as sagittal (vertical) or axial (horizontal), which show different angles and slices of the area. With an MRI of the lumbar spine, radiologists are able to gather detailed information regarding the vertebral bones, intervertebral discs, facet joints, ligaments, soft tissues, and nerve roots.

They can use these images to detect various conditions of the spinal column such as:

  • Herniated disc
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Vertebral fracture
  • Vertebral hemangioma
  • Infections such as epidural abscess or osteomyelitis
  • Metastatic spinal cancer
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Ankylosing spondylitis

Conditions of the spinal cord:

  • Spinal cord compression
  • Cauda equina syndrome
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Spinal cord tumors

Conditions of the muscle or soft tissue

  • Piriformis syndrome
  • Hematoma
  • Abscess

Are There Any Side Effects From a Lumbar Spine MRI?

Lumbar spine MRI: portrait of a man smiling at the camera

As mentioned, an MRI of the lumbar spine is a safe imaging test that, unlike some other imaging tests, does not expose a person to any radiation. People usually don’t have any side effects and are allowed to drive home on their own afterward.

MRI Lumbar Spine and More: Take Control of Your Health

If you’ve been dealing with low back pain or have other symptoms that may be concerning to your healthcare provider, it’s possible the next step is to get a lumbar spine MRI. This imaging test is very safe, doesn’t expose you to radiation, and is used for detecting a wide range of medical conditions. You can speak to your primary care provider to discuss getting an MRI of your lumbar spine.

Many conditions that are detected early have better outcomes such as cancer. With Ezra’s Full Body MRI, not only are 13 major organs screened for cancer (including the spine), but you also get the opportunity to discuss your results with a Ezra medical provider and plan for future follow-up.

We know MRI is the best test for detecting various conditions such as cancer. If you’re interested in cancer screening, this is also a unique opportunity as you can simply book the scan yourself and not wait on a doctor’s orders. Book your Ezra scan today to take charge of your health and detect potential issues before you even develop symptoms.