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Spine MRI

Uses radio waves, a magnetic field and a computer to produce detailed pictures of the spine and surrounding tissues that are clearer and more detailed than other imaging methods. The exam does not use ionizing radiation and may require an injection of a contrast material called gadolinium, which is less likely to cause an allergic reaction than iodinated contrast material.

MR imaging is performed to:

  • assess spinal anatomy and alignment.
  • detect congenital anomalies of vertebrae or the spinal cord.
  • detect bone, disc, ligament or spinal cord injury after spine trauma.
  • assess intervertebral disk disease (degenerated, bulging or herniated) and intervertebral joint disease, both frequent causes of severe lower back pain and sciatica (back pain radiating into lower leg).
  • explore other possible causes of back pain (compression fracture or bone swelling, such as edema).
  • assess compression of spinal cord and nerves.
  • assess inflammation of the spinal cord or nerves.
  • assess infection involving the spine, disks and spinal contents including spinal cord or its coverings (meninges).
  • assess tumors that arise from or have spread to the vertebrae, spinal cord, nerves or the surrounding soft tissues.
  • help plan spinal surgical procedures, such as decompression of a pinched nerve, spinal fusion, or the injection of steroids to relieve spinal pain. Such injections are usually performed under CT guidance.
  • monitor changes in the spine after an operation, such as scarring or infection.

MRI examinations may be performed on outpatients or inpatients.

You will be positioned on the moveable examination table. Straps and bolsters may be used to help you stay still and maintain the correct position during imaging.

Devices that contain coils capable of sending and receiving radio waves may be placed around or adjacent to the area of the body being studied.

Depending on the location of symptoms, only part of the spine may be imaged. For example, the cervical (neck) portion, the thoracic (chest) spine or the lumbar (lower) spine. Intravenously injected contrast material may be used when looking for infection, tumors or recurrent disk issues after a surgery.

If a contrast material will be used in the MRI exam, a physician, nurse or technologist will insert an intravenous (IV) catheter, also known as an IV line, into a vein in your hand or arm. A saline solution may be used to inject the contrast material. The solution will drip through the IV to prevent blockage of the IV catheter until the contrast material is injected.

You will be placed into the magnet of the MRI unit and the radiologist and technologist will perform the examination while working at a computer outside of the room.

When the examination is complete, you may be asked to wait until the technologist or radiologist checks the images in case additional images are needed.

Your intravenous line will be removed.

MRI exams generally include multiple runs (sequences), some of which may last several minutes.

The entire examination is usually completed within 30 to 60 minutes depending on whether the entire length of the spine is scanned or only part of the spine is scanned. If contrast material is used, more images are needed after the injection which adds an additional 15 to 20 minutes to the total scan time.

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