July 20, 2023
July 20, 2023

What Is a Spine MRI and When (and Why) Should You Get One?

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What Is a Spine MRI and When (and Why) Should You Get One?

A strong and healthy spine is the cornerstone of a well-functioning body. It not only supports your frame but also allows you to bend, flex, and move more freely. However, most people tend to overlook the importance of spine health until they experience back problems. And they might not even be aware of how a spine MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan can help.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, back pain is one of the most prevalent medical issues in the United States. It can manifest as a constant ache or even a sharp pain that radiates to other areas. Back pain can be triggered by sudden accidents, falls, or heavy lifting, or it may develop gradually due to age-related, degenerative changes in the spine.

Unfortunately, back pain isn’t usually enough for your doctor to order a spine MRI. According to guidelines from the American College of Physicians, diagnostic imaging tests like MRI are reserved for patients who have severe or progressive back pain or for back pain lasting longer than four weeks. However, waiting until you’re in discomfort isn’t the optimal strategy. Instead, consider taking a proactive approach that can significantly benefit your overall health and well-being. 

Here, we’ll cover the anatomy and function of your spine, what to expect from a spine MRI, the areas it covers, and what you can do if you want to make having a radiologic screening MRI part of your preventive routine. 

Anatomy and Function of Your Spine

Also called the “backbone,” your spinal column is a complex group of bones that creates your body’s main support. The bones of the spine are called vertebrae. You have 33 of them stacked on top of each other, interlocking to form the column that surrounds your spinal cord. A healthy spine actually has a natural S-shaped curve.The five sections or segments of your spine are: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal. 

Between each vertebra are tiny shock absorbers called intervertebral discs. Ligaments are soft tissues that hold the vertebrae together, and tendons connect them to muscles. Your spine works with your nervous and musculoskeletal systems to make sure you can sit, twist, bend, and walk. 

What Is an MRI of the Spine and How Long Will It Take?

Unlike X-rays, which use harmful ionizing radiation, magnetic resonance imaging uses a magnetic field and radio waves to take detailed images of your spine and nearby tissues. 

An MRI exam is useful in evaluating the medical conditions impacting the soft tissue structures of the back, including the position of the vertebrae that make up your spinal column. It may spot abnormalities indicative of infection, nerve and disc problems, arthritis, blood vessel problems, and spinal tumors. 

During the Full Body scan at Ezra, the entire process takes one hour or less. 

What Can a Cervical Spine MRI Show?

Your cervical spine, or C-spine, consists of the first seven bones or vertebrae of your spinal column. A cervical spine MRI scans the neck region from the base of your head to the beginning of the thoracic or mid-back region. It includes structures like the thyroid gland, throat, larynx, neck muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues.

A few types of abnormalities that a cervical spine MRI procedure may help detect include:

  • Congenital birth defects
  • Scarring or injury
  • Irregularities in the position of vertebrae or in the curvature of the spine
  • Pinched nerves
  • Cancer tumors of the cervical spine
  • Thyroid gland tumors
  • Spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal column
  • Cysts

What Can a Thoracic Spine MRI Tell You?

The thoracic segment includes 12 vertebrae, which are larger than the cervical vertebrae, and are part of the structures of your upper or middle back. These structures include muscles, thoracic ligaments, tendons, and intervertebral discs. Your thoracic spine also includes 12 sets of ribs and the structures that make the thoracic cavity. The joints are attached with another type of soft tissue called cartilage.

Some abnormalities that may be spotted on a thoracic spine MRI are:

  • Tumors in the spinal canal
  • Tumors of the spinal cord
  • Bulging spinal discs
  • Compression fractures
  • Disc degeneration
  • Cysts
  • Injuries to the nerves, muscles, ligaments, and tendons
  • Injuries to the rib cage and costochondral separation (where the rib pulls away from the cartilage)
  • Joint inflammation
  • Abscesses and other signs of infection

What Can You Learn From a Lumbar Spine MRI?

The lumbar spine is your lower back, but a lumbar spine MRI usually includes the sacral and coccygeal areas as well. Your lumbar spine has five vertebrae, and they’re larger than those in the thoracic region. The thorax connects to your pelvis and sacrum. It includes large muscles that help you bend and lift and carry heavy loads. It also has a complex network of nerves and blood vessels.

During a lumbar MRI, some abnormalities that may show up are:

  • Bulging or herniated disc
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Disc height loss
  • Vertebral malformation
  • Muscle, tendon, and ligament injury
  • Abnormal nerve roots, including nerve injury
  • Spine infections
  • Sclerosis
  • Neuromuscular diseases
  • Tumors
  • Aneurysms and other blood vessel disorders
  • Cysts

What Can You Expect When Getting an MRI for the First Time?

A spine MRI requires very little preparation. Most of the time, you can eat, drink, and take your usual medications before you scan. However, the MRI machine uses a strong magnetic field to create the images, so you’ll need to remove all metal objects and accessories like jewelry and eyeglasses before you scan. 

Additionally, let your technologist know if you have any:

  • Metal implanted devices (pumps, clips, staples, stents, pacemakers, defibrillators)
  • Dental implants
  • Embedded metal (shrapnel like bullets or BBs, metal foreign bodies from welding or metalworking)
  • Tattoos or permanent makeup

After completing any additional paperwork and slipping into the pajamas that Ezra provides, an MRI technologist will lead you to the MRI area and help you get situated on the padded scan table. 

You’ll notice the MRI machine is shaped like a large donut with a tunnel that’s open on both ends. During the scan, the table will slide into the MRI scanner.

Feeling a little anxious while in the scanner is normal. You can speak to your technician via an intercom if you need anything. Be sure to tell your technician ahead of time if you have claustrophobia.

The key to great MRI images is lying as still as possible. It helps to empty your bladder before your appointment. The scan shouldn’t take longer than an hour.

While the test is painless, it is noisy. You can wear hearing protection like earplugs or, as provided at some Ezra partner facilities, noise-canceling headphones. At certain facilities, you can also listen to your favorite Spotify playlist or YouTube channel while you scan.

After your scan, a radiologist will read your images and prepare a report. If you scan with Ezra, you can opt for a follow-up telehealth visit to go over your scan results in about a week.

The Ezra Full Body Scan Includes a Spine MRI

A healthy spine is integral to your overall wellness. From your neck to your tailbone, your spinal column supports movement and flexibility while you walk, bend, and lift. A spine MRI can help spot abnormalities like tumors, disease, disc herniation, muscle injury, and other soft tissue anomalies. 

Most people get a spine MRI when they have an ongoing problem like lower back pain, sciatica, or disc degeneration. But you don’t have to wait until you have low back pain, numbness, difficulty moving, or have suffered an injury to get a spine MRI. Early detection can help catch problems before symptoms appear and while they’re easier to treat.

The Ezra Full Body scan includes a screening spine MRI and is faster than a typical MRI scan. If deemed necessary, additional scans may be included in the Full Body Plus. For instance, your Ezra medical provider will be reviewing your medical history to see if you could benefit from a low-dose chest CT scan (computed tomography) or coronary calcium scoring.

At Ezra, you don’t have to see a referring physician to order your Ezra Scan. If you want to get an MRI to screen for potential cancers and other diseases, you can get started today by creating an account and booking your scan online today.