Getting ready for an MRI of your Spine

What is an MRI?

An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan uses magnets and radio waves to capture images inside your body without making a surgical incision. The scan allows your doctor to see the soft tissue of your body, like muscles and organs, in addition to your bones.

An MRI can be performed on any part of your body. A lumbar MRI specifically examines the lumbar section of your spine — the region where back problems commonly originate. Similarly, cervical spine MRI covers the neck part of your spine and Thoracic spine covers the chest part of spine.

Why an MRI is done?

An MRI scan provides a different kind of image from other imaging tests like X-rays (which is most of the times a preliminary screening tool for spinal conditions) or CT scans (Which give more detail about the bones and joints). An MRI of the spine shows the bones, disks, spinal cord, nerves, muscles and the spaces between the vertebral bones where nerves pass through.

Your spine surgeon may recommend an MRI to better diagnose or treat problems with your spine. Injury-related pain, disease, infection, or other factors could be causing your condition. Your doctor might order a lumbar MRI if you have the following symptoms:

back pain or neck pain accompanied by fever

birth defects affecting your spine

injury to your spine

persistent or severe neck pain or back pain

multiple sclerosis

problems with your bladder or toilet functions

weakness, numbness, or other problems with your legs

rarely signs of spinal cancer

Your spine surgeon might also order an MRI if you’re scheduled for spinal surgery. The MRI will help them plan the procedure before making an incision.

How to prepare for a lumbar MRI

Before the test, tell your doctor if you have a pacemaker. Your doctor may suggest another method for inspecting your lumbar spine, such as a CT scan, depending on the type of pacemaker. But some pacemaker models can be reprogrammed before an MRI so they’re not disrupted during the scan. This can be done by your spine surgeon in co-ordination with your heart doctor. The MRI technician will ask you to remove all jewellery and piercings and change into a hospital gown before the scan. An MRI uses magnets that can sometimes attract metals. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any metal implants or if any of the following items are present in your body which h might include (but not limited to): artificial heart valves, clips, implants, pins, plates, prosthetic joints or limbs, screws, staples or stents.

If a contrast is required for your MRI (in conditions like history of previous surgery, suspicion of infection or cancer etc), tell your spine surgeon about any allergies you have or allergic reactions you’ve had.

What to do if the patient is Claustrophobic?

If you’re claustrophobic, you may feel uncomfortable while in the MRI machine. Tell your doctor about this so they can prescribe anti-anxiety medications. In some cases, you can also be sedated during the scan. Or recently we have option of open MRI.

What are the risks of a MRI scan?

Unlike an X-ray or CT scan, an MRI doesn’t use ionizing radiation. It’s considered a safer alternative, especially for pregnant women and growing children. To date, here have been no documented side effects from the radio waves and magnets used in the scan.

There are risks for people who have implants containing metal. The magnets used in an MRI can result in problems with pacemakers or cause implanted screws or pins to shift in your body.

Another complication is an allergic reaction to contrast dye Allergic reactions to the dye are often mild and easy to control with medication. But, sometimes anaphylactic reactions (and even deaths) can occur.

How an MRI is performed?

An MRI scanner looks like a usually has a doughnut like central part with a bench that slowly glides you into the central part. If you follow all the instructions of the technician and removed all metal items before entering, the MRI machine is a very safe place to be.  The entire process can take from 30 to 90 minutes. The technician will have you lie on the bench with a pillow and a blanket. The technician will control the movement of the bench from another room. They can communicate with patient through a speaker. During the MRI the machine makes some loud humming and thumping noises as it takes the images. Many hospitals offer Ear muffs or plugs to shield from the noise. As the images are being taken, the technician will ask you to hold your breath for a few seconds. You won’t feel anything during the test. If contrast dye will be used, a nurse or doctor will inject the contrast dye through a tube inserted into one of your veins. In some cases, you may need to wait up to an hour for the dye to work its way through your bloodstream and into your spine.

After an MRI

After the test if you took sedatives before the procedure, you shouldn’t drive otherwise there are no special precautions. It would be best to let your spine surgeon have a look at the report and make the required conclusions for you rather than googling your report findings.

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