February 9, 2023
February 9, 2023

What Does an MRI Scan of the Spine Show? When Do You Need One?

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What Does an MRI Scan of the Spine Show? When Do You Need One?

Key takeaways:

  • An MRI of the spine may help your healthcare practitioner identify abnormalities related to spine problems, which they may connect to other symptoms.
  • An MRI of the spine is usually an outpatient procedure and can take 30 to 60 minutes.
  • A full-body MRI scan may help in early detection of health problems. It should be part of a general healthcare routine.    

Your medical practitioner has ordered an MRI of the spine. She says she wants to better understand whether there is an anatomical problem associated with your persistent back pain. She gives you a referral for the scan.

While driving home, you mull over the question, “What does an MRI scan of the spine show?”

Let’s review when an MRI scan of the spine is important and how to prepare for it.

What Does an MRI Scan of the Spine Show?

Woman holding her back in pain

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan of the spine usually means a lumbar scan, although it can also mean scanning the upper parts of the spine (cervical and thoracic) depending upon the symptoms and what your healthcare practitioner wants to see.

The lumbar spine is the area where most back problems, like lower back pain, usually originate. The lumbar, or lumbosacral, part of the spine is the lower half and consists of the lumbar vertebrae – L1 through L5 – and the sacrum and coccyx (the tailbone). A network of tendons, cartilage, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels are also associated with this region.

A practitioner reviewing images from a spine MRI usually looks for a number of issues, including:

  • Fractures
  • Infections
  • Tumors
  • Injuries
  • Swelling
  • Issues with intervertebral discs: irregular sizes, bulging, or slipped discs
  • Unusual anatomy of the spine (unusual curves, etc.)
  • Problems with surrounding nerves (pinched nerve, inflammation, etc.)
  • Size of the spinal canal (if there are signs of stenosis, or abnormal narrowing of the canal)
  • Other spinal cord abnormalities
However, an MRI scan of the spine may not always give your healthcare practitioner definitive answers.

Even though you have severe back pain, your MRI scan may show a perfectly normal anatomy and vice versa.

Note that while an MRI is a useful tool, an MRI scan is not diagnostic in itself and your physician will correlate the findings from the scan along with your physical exams and your symptoms to arrive at a conclusion.

Why Would a Doctor Order an MRI of the Spine?

What does an MRI scan of the spine show: spine scan result
Not all back pains require an MRI scan. Besides, many back issues get resolved within a few weeks.

For example, let’s say you have a herniated disc, which is when the soft cushion between two vertebrae comes out through a crack in its casing. For most people, this problem resolves within a few weeks.

To get a holistic picture of your health, a healthcare practitioner will usually evaluate your medical history and symptoms across your body to better assess the root cause of your back pains.

A whole body MRI that includes the spine may be a good way to get an overview of your  body and spine. Here are a few spine-related symptoms they might take note of:

  • Back pain with fever
  • Neck pain
  • Lower back injury
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Weakness, tingling, and/or numbness in your legs
  • Stiffness in the lower back that restricts movement
  • Signs of cancer

If you are scheduled to undergo spine surgery, your surgeon will most likely order a spinal MRI first to help them prepare.

Preparing for an MRI Scan of the Spine

Unless advised otherwise, you can eat, drink and take medications as usual on the day of your spine MRI. However, you may be asked to stop eating and drinking large quantities of food or liquids a couple of hours before the scan.

Wear comfortable clothing and avoid applying makeup that may contain magnetic substances (one of these is mascara).

The imaging center or the hospital may provide you with a hospital gown. At ezra, we provide pajamas so you can feel comfy during the scan. At certain facilities, we also provide masks and ear plugs that work well with MRIs.

Because an MRI scanner uses a strong magnetic field, you’ll have to remove all metallic objects from your person – your watch, eyeglasses, belt, body piercings, wigs, dentures, hearing aid, jewelry, etc.

If you have a tattoo, let your technician and ezra Care Advisor know. Some tattoo inks contain iron, which may heat up during the MRI scan procedure and lead to burns.

If you have a medical implant, like a pacemaker or cochlear implants, let ezra and your MRI technologist know. They will check to see if your implant is MRI-compatible or not.

In some cases, your medical team may decide to perform an MRI scan with contrast. In this case, you’ll be given a contrast dye that is usually a compound of gadolinium or iodine. The contrast agent will be introduced in your body through an IV line.

If you are allergic to anything, have a specific allergy to compounds used as contrast, or have a kidney disorder, please let your medical team know. They will assess the need for a contrast MRI and may proceed with a non-contrast MRI scan.

There is a rare chance of a patient suffering from mild side effects of an allergic reaction to the contrast dye.  

If you have claustrophobia, talk with your medical care team.

Recommended readingFacing Your Fears: A Guide to Coping with MRI Claustrophobia

MRI of the Spine: What To Expect From the Scan

An MRI scan of the spine is usually an outpatient procedure unless it is an emergency. So, let’s cover what to expect as you get this scan outside these urgent situations.

Once you’re ready, you’ll enter the MRI scan lounge, which is where the MRI scanner is. The MRI scanner is a large cylindrical tube that houses the magnets.

You’ll lie on a table that gently slides inside the tube. As your body slides inside, it is scanned by the radio waves. The signals are sent to a computer program that creates detailed pictures of the inside of your body – soft tissue, bones, joints, etc.

When the scanning is in progress, the MRI machine makes loud thumping and clicking noises. This is totally normal. Your imaging center may provide you with earplugs to cut the noise. At ezra, we’ll give you a pair of earplugs.

At select partner facilities we can also play your favorite Spotify® playlist during the MRI procedure. We want to do our best to make the scan a stress-free, even pleasant experience.

The time a spine MRI takes depends upon which part of the spine is being scanned. Usually it takes from 30 to 60 minutes.

The ezra Full Body takes 60 minutes to complete, and it screens the entire body (up to 13 organs, including the spine and parts of the head, neck, chest, abdomen and pelvis) for signs of possible cancer and disease.  

Once the procedure is complete, you can change back to your clothes and get back to your day. The MRI images will be read by a radiologist, and your MRI results will be sent to you when it is ready.

Differences Between MRI and CT Scans

As you research spinal scans, you may read about CT scans for the spine as well.

Both MRI and CT (computed tomography) are imaging tests that allow medical professionals to see the inside of your body without cutting it open. Both tests are painless and non-invasive.

When deciding between which test to perform, medical professionals generally assess the risk-benefit ratio to arrive at a conclusion.

While in many cases, MRI scan images can be better in quality, a CT scan is the preferred imaging test to scan certain areas, like the chest and bowels, since it tends to be better when movement is involved. CT scans are also good at seeing bony fractures.

Plus, an MRI scan uses a combination of radio waves and magnetic field, a CT scan uses X-rays.

While the amount of radiation dose you get from a single CT scan is small, regular screening with CT scans may contribute to issues later.

The ezra Scan: One Way To Stay Ahead of Health Problems

What does an MRI scan of the spine show: happy couple

We hope that we’ve answered your question, “What does an MRI scan of the spine show?”

An MRI scan is an advanced imaging modality that can help your medical team to diagnose health problems. To stay proactive about your health before symptoms appear, book an ezra Full Body.

By getting an annual ezra full-body MRI scan as part of your routine health care, you can monitor changes in your health over time and detect possible abnormalities like early cancer or other diseases earlier.

When a problem is detected in the early stages, your treatment can be more effective.

The ezra Full Body scans up to 13 organs for signs of potential cancer. It is priced at $1,950 (or $180/month). The Ezra Full Body Plus, our most advanced service, scans up to 14 organs, including the lungs, and costs $2,350 (or $220 per month).

The scan also includes an optional 45-minute follow-up consultation and access to an ezra Personal Care Advisor. You can also pay for the ezra Scan with your FSA and HSA dollars.