February 9, 2023
February 9, 2023

What Is a Spine MRI, and Why Might You Have One?

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What Is a Spine MRI, and Why Might You Have One?

Key takeaways:

  • Your doctor may order a spine MRI if you have spinal pain or dysfunction.
  • Spine MRIs check for abnormalities like infection, nerve problems, disc herniation, and tumors.
  • Getting a screening MRI for your spine may help find problems before they lead to further pain or injury.
  • Ezra Scans include a screening spine MRI in all Full Body and Full Body Plus packages.

A healthy spine helps support your body while letting you bend, flex, and move freely. Unfortunately, most people wait until they have back problems to see a doctor or get a spine MRI instead of making a part of their routine preventive care.

Back pain is often not 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. If this is you, your doctor may order a focused MRI of the affected section.

A screening MRI examination like an ezra Scan isn’t as specific but includes a single view of each section of your spine. And you don’t need to have a history of pain or injury.

What Is an MRI of the Spine?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnetic field and radio waves to take detailed images of your spine and nearby tissues.

A spine MRI is useful in evaluating the soft tissue structures of the back, including the position of the vertebrae that make up your spinal column.

An MRI scan of the spine may spot abnormalities indicative of infection, nerve and disc problems, arthritis, blood vessel problems, and spinal tumors.

The Anatomy and Function of the Spine

Also called the “backbone”, the 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 houses your spinal cord.

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.

Fun fact: 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. Let’s look at why you might get an MRI of each part.

What Can a Cervical Spine MRI Show?

Man massaging his nape

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
  • Aneurysm or weakened vessel wall
  • Vascular malformations or abnormally developed blood vessels
  • Bleeding

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
  • Disc degeneration
  • Bleeding
  • 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 an MRI of the lumbar spine usually includes the sacral and coccygeal areas as well.

Your lumbar spine has five vertebrae, and they are 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
  • Bleeding

First Time Getting an MRI? Here’s What To Expect

Spine MRI: woman using her phone

Luckily, 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 valuables like jewelry and eyeglasses before you scan. Additionally, let your provider know if you have any:

  • Metal implanted devices (pumps, clips, staples, stents, pacemakers, defibrillators)
  • Embedded metal (shrapnel like bullets or BBs, metal embeds from welding or metalworking)
  • Tattoos
  • Permanent makeup

Your healthcare provider will decide whether it’s safe to continue with the scan.

Next you’ll complete any additional paperwork and slip into the PJs that ezra provides. Then, one of our staff members will lead you to the MRI area and help you onto the padded scan table. You’ll notice the MRI machine is shaped like a large donut with a tunnel and open on both ends. During the scan, the table will slide into the MRI scanner.

It’s normal to feel a little anxious while in the scanner. But if you need anything, you can talk with your technician via an intercom.  Be sure to let your technician know if you are prone to claustrophobia related to MRI.

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 ezra partner facilities, noise-canceling headphones. At certain facilities, you can also listen to your favorite Spotify playlist while you scan.

After your scan, you can go about your day as normal. If you scan with ezra, expect a follow-up telehealth visit to go over your scan results in about a week.

Scan Your Spine During an ezra Full Body

A healthy spine is important 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, infection, 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.

Ezra recommends that healthy adults make MRI screening a part of their routine healthcare. Early detection can help catch problems before symptoms appear and while they’re easier to treat.

The ezra Full Body and Full Body Plus scans include a screening spine MRI. Your ezra Medical Provider will also review your medical history to see if you qualify for a low-dose chest CT scan (computed tomography), coronary calcium scoring, or a prostate scan with IV contrast. These are included in the Full Body Plus.

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 your account and booking your scan.