MRI - Spine

MRI is short for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It uses a powerful magnet combined with radio waves to generate detailed images of the inside of the back (spine).

MRI can show abnormalities, injuries and diseases in the spinal region that may not be seen if using other imaging methods. It is painless and does not involve x-rays or any harmful radiation.

What is MRI scanning of the spine?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive medical test that physicians use to diagnose and treat medical conditions. 
MRI uses a powerful magnetic field, radio frequency pulses and a computer to produce detailed pictures of internal body structures. MRI does not use ionizing radiation (x-rays).
An MRI examination of the spine shows the anatomy of the vertebrae that make up the spine, ligaments that hold the vertebrae together, as well as the discs, spinal cord and the spaces between the vertebrae through which nerves pass.
Detailed MR images of the spine allow physicians to determine the presence of certain conditions.  Currently, MRI is the most sensitive imaging test of the spine in routine clinical practice. 

What are some common uses of the examination?

MR imaging is performed to:
  • Assess spinal anatomy and alignment.
  • Assess intervertebral disc disease (degenerated, bulging or herniated) and intervertebral joint disease, both frequent causes of back pain and sciatica (back pain radiating into lower leg).
  • Explore other possible causes of back pain (compression fracture or bone bruising, such as oedema).
  • Help plan spinal surgical procedures, such as decompression of a pinched nerve, spinal fusion, or the injection of steroids to relieve spinal pain. 
  • Assess compression of spinal cord and nerves.
  • Detect bone, disc, ligament or spinal cord injury after spine trauma.
  • Assess infection involving the spine, discs and spinal contents including spinal cord or its coverings (meninges).
  • Assess tumours that arise from or have spread to the vertebrae, spinal cord, nerves or the surrounding soft tissues.
  • Monitor changes in the spine after an operation, such as scarring or infection.
  • On arrival, you will be asked to complete a safety questionnaire. One of our MRI Radiographers will then check it with you,explain the examination to you and answer any questions you may have.
    You will be asked to change into a gown and to remove any metal, for example: jewellery, hairpins, eyeglasses, watches, wigs, dentures, hearing aids and underwire bras. An MRI specialist, the Radiographer, will take you into the scanning room where you will lie on the scanner  table. 
    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. During an MRI of the head, for example, a device is positioned around the head to improve image quality.
    During the MRI you may slowly move through the scanner. The scanner can be quite loud, due to the powerful magnets working within it. You will hear repetitive clicking, tapping and other loud noises. We will ask you, as a precaution, to wear hearing protection and for some scans you may be able to listen to the radio. You will be asked to lie very still so as to ensure clear images are produced . The Radiographer operating the scanner can both see and hear you clearly throughout the examination and will speak to you through an intercom connected to the headphones.
    The procedure is painless. You don't feel the magnetic field or radio waves, and there are no moving parts around you. Some patients find it uncomfortable to remain still during an MRI, whilst others experience a sense of being closed-in (claustrophobia). If this is something you are concerned about, you may want to ask your Physician for a prescription for a mild sedative prior to your scheduled examination.  However, fewer than one in 20 patients require medication for this.
    In some cases, a contrast dye called gadolinium, may be injected through an intravenous line into a vein in your hand or arm. The contrast is not always needed but can enhance the appearance of certain details in the scan. The contrast used during MRI scans is less likely to cause an allergic reaction than the dye used for CT scans.
    If you have not been sedated, no recovery period is necessary. You may resume your normal activities and diet immediately after the MRI. On very rare occasions, patients experience hives, itchy eyes or other reactions to the contrast dye (if it was used). If you experience symptoms of an allergic reaction, please notify the Radiographer. A Radiologist or other physician will be available for immediate assistance.