MRI Animation

Magnetic Resonance Imaging Test for Back Pain

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive imaging exam that does not use radiation (x-ray).  Instead, MRI uses 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).  MRI images can be viewed on film (like x-ray), or on a 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

When the MRI magnets are activated, the hydrogen atoms in your body line up and spin.  When the magnet is turned off, the atoms stop rotating 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 uses to manipulate imaging data and render each MRI.
Doctor speaking with patient in hospital bed.Your physician may order an MRI in order to view potential causes of neck pain or low back pain, such as a bulging disc or a herniated disc. Photo Source:

Why Your Physician May Order MRI

MRI is often preferred when evaluation of soft tissues (like spinal discs or nerves) is necessary. Some of the reasons your physician may order MRI include:

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 uses powerful magnets, patients with pacemakers, metal implants, tattoos, or who are (or may be) pregnant cannot undergo this test.  A computed tomography (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.

Updated on: 06/02/19
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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a powerful diagnostic tool that produces highly detailed images of the spine and other parts of your body.
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