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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the Spine

An MRI is a test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of the spine. In many cases, an MRI gives different information than an X-ray, an ultrasound, or a CT scan. An MRI also may show problems that cannot be seen with other imaging tests.

For an MRI, your body is placed inside a machine that contains a strong magnet. Pictures from an MRI can be saved and stored on a computer for further study. In some cases, a contrast material may be used during the MRI to show certain parts of the body more clearly.

The MRI can find changes in the spine and in other tissues. It also can find problems such as infection or a tumor. MRI can look at the spine in the neck (cervical), upper back (thoracic), or lower back (lumbosacral). The entire spine can be seen in one series of pictures to find a tumor. More detailed pictures of one area, such as the lumbar spine, camera.gif may be taken.

MRI may be used to check low back problems.

Low Back Pain: Should I Have an MRI?

You may be able to have an MRI with an open machine camera.gif that doesn't enclose your entire body. But open MRI machines aren't available everywhere. The pictures from an open MRI may not be as good as those from a standard MRI machine camera.gif.

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Low Back Pain: Should I Have an MRI?

Why It Is Done

An MRI of the spine is done to:

  • Find problems of the spinal discs, such as a ruptured disc. The test may also show if a disc is pressing on a nerve, causing symptoms such as sciatica.
  • Find areas of the spine where the canal is abnormally narrowed (spinal stenosis) and may need surgery.
  • Find tumors affecting the bones or nerves of the spine. The tumors that most commonly spread to the spine include those from prostate, breast, or lung cancer.
  • Find compression fractures of the spine.
  • Check areas of joint inflammation (arthritis) or bone loss found during an X-ray test or a bone scan.
  • Find areas of the spine that do not have good blood supply.
  • Find an infection.
  • Find nerve damage caused by injury or disease, such as multiple sclerosis.
  • Check problems of the spine that have been present since birth (congenital).

An MRI may be done using contrast material to see abnormal tissue more clearly. The contrast material also may help tell the difference between old surgical scars and a new disease or injury.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 24, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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