Why You May Need an MRI to Diagnose Your Back Pain
MRI is the acronym for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. MRI is non-invasive and does not use radiation (x-ray). MRI utilizes powerful magnets, radio waves, and computers to create detailed images in shades of black and white. It is an important tool physicians use to diagnose and treat spinal conditions.
MRI can capture images from these different angles:
- Lateral: side view
- Axial: overhead view
- Anterior: front view
- Posterior: rear view
Unlike conventional x-ray, MRI can capture pictures of your spine and render the image as a whole (like a loaf of bread) or slices (a sliced loaf of bread). MR images can be viewed on film (like x-ray) or computer monitor in your physician’s office or in the operating room. Furthermore, the images can be emailed, printed, or copied onto various storage devices.
How MRI Works
Your body has hydrogen atoms in it. When the MRI magnets are activated, the atoms line up and spin. When the magnet is turned off, the atoms stop rotating—but at different rates depending on the type of tissue (eg, bone or muscle) the hydrogen atoms occupy. A computer collects all this information and performs complex calculations, which the system utilizes to manipulate imaging data and render each MRI.
Why Your Physician May Order MRI
MRI is often preferred when evaluation of soft tissues is necessary. Some of the reasons your physician may order MRI include the following:
- View potential causes of neck pain or low back pain, such as a bulging disc or a herniated disc
- Evaluate spinal cord and/or nerve compression
- Assess infection
- Detect a tumor
- Plan surgery
How to Prepare for MRI
Your physician provides specific instructions for you. If you are claustrophobic (have a fear of being in a confined space), let your physician know. Many MRI machines require the patient to be slid into a tube-like structure for the test. However, some radiological facilities in your area may offer open MRI. Before open MRI was available, patients were administered a medication that reduces feelings of claustrophobia.
Because the MRI utilizes powerful magnets, patients with pacemakers, metal implants, tattoos, or who are (or may be) pregnant cannot undergo this test. A CT scan is an alternative.
The radiology technician may ask you to change into a gown, and/or remove anything metallic (eg, belt with metal buckle, jewelry, pocket change). Your clothing and personal things are kept secure for you during the test.
What to Expect During MRI
The radiology technician may offer you earplugs or headphones because the MRI machine makes different noises during the test. Some of the noises are loud (eg, loud clicking), but the machine is supposed to make those noises; you do not have to worry.
You are positioned on the bed of the MRI machine. This is an automated platform that slides you into and out of the machine. Since the MRI room is often cold, you are covered with a blanket and made as comfortable as possible.
The MRI test is broken up into segments. Throughout the test you and the technician can speak to each other. He asks how you are doing, tells you when to be still, and how long the next testing segment will last. It may take an hour (sometimes longer) to perform the MRI.
After the MRI
The radiologist interprets the MRI and dictates a report for your physician’s review. Your physician will explain the results to you so you understand his diagnosis and treatment recommendations based on the MRI.