Spine MRI Scans: What Every Patient Should Know

When a physician recommends a spine MRI, patients often feel some apprehension about the process. What will the scan involve? Is it dangerous? Will it allow for safer treatment of back pain?

First, it’s helpful to understand how MRIs work and what they’re able to show. Typically, your doctor won’t recommend an MRI of your entire back, since this would involve separate MRIs of three distinct regions: the lumbar spine, the thoracic spine, and the cervical spine.

An MRI (or magnetic resonance imaging scan) provides a detailed view of the various structures in an area of the spine, including disks, vertebrae, ligaments, and nerves. It uses powerful magnets to align the protons of water molecules in the body, creating a radio signal that the scanner can read and convert into images.

There’s not really such a thing as a “spinal MRI,” per se, since the spine is composed of three distinct regions; depending on your symptoms and history, you might need one or more of the following scans:

  • Cervical spine MRI – This examination looks at the seven vertebrae in the neck region of the spine (along with the surrounding tissues). The cervical spine support your skull and allow for head movement, so if you’ve got pain or limited mobility in this part of the spine, you may need a cervical spine MRI.
  • Thoracic spine MRI – The thoracic spine consists of the 12 vertebrae below the cervical spine. Pain in this region is relatively uncommon, but it can be just as disabling as pain in either of the other spinal regions. If you’re suffering from chronic back pain, your physician might recommend a combination lumbar/thoracic MRI in order to identify the source of the issue.
  • Lumbar spine MRI – These are the last five vertebrae of your spine. They’re tasked with carrying most of your body weight — and that’s one of the reasons that lower back pain is relatively common. If you’ve got lower back pain and your physician recommends an MRI, there’s a fairly good chance that he’s recommending a lumbar MRI.

A physician might recommend an MRI of one of these areas if you’re experiencing back pain, bladder problems, leg weakness or numbness, or other chronic issues; an MRI might also be used to diagnose birth defects, multiple sclerosis, brain or spinal cancer, or other diseases. When you need MRIs of multiple spinal regions, each test is performed more or less independently, so you’ll pay for each test — not just one all-encompassing scan.

Because MRIs are safe, accurate, and diagnostically useful, they’re often recommended over other imaging technologies for evaluating spinal issues. If your doctor asks you to undergo a spinal MRI, you should certainly do so. Otherwise, you might not be able to start a safe course of treatment.

What should you expect during a spine MRI examination?

Spinal MRIs use powerful magnets, not ionizing radiation, so they don’t raise your risk of cancer. The time required for the exam varies; a typical lumbar spine MRI examination, for instance, will take from 30 to 90 minutes.

Typically, patients receive a contrast dye injection, which improves the quality of the diagnostic images. These dyes are safe for most patients and have a low incidence of side effects (read more about them here).

During the actual MRI, you’ll remove any jewelry and other items that could interfere with the machinery and lay motionless in the machine while the technologist takes images. If you have claustrophobia, you may be able to get an open MRI. Read more about the MRI process here.

If your physician asks for multiple MRIs of different spinal regions, the costs can quickly add up. A single MRI can cost upwards of $3000 at some imaging facilities. At BestPriceMRI.com, we work with a network of facilities to keep per-MRI costs low, with prices starting at $249 for some types of spinal scans (including the radiologist’s report). We carefully evaluate every facility to ensure that patients don’t sacrifice the quality of their care or the diagnostic validity of their MRI scans.

To get more information, click here to find guaranteed prices in your area, or call our scheduling team at 888-322-7785 to book your appointment. You can also schedule your procedure by email; just drop us a note at [email protected] or visit our contact page to find an affordable spine MRI today.

Posted in MRI