Spinal MRI

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on August 23, 2022
6 min read

spinal MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, uses powerful magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make clear, detailed pictures of your spine.

You may need this scan to check for spine problems, including:

The MRI may scan your whole spine or just a part of it. Unlike X-rays and computerized tomography (CT) scans, it doesn’t use damaging radiation. It’s generally safe and painless. The doctor will let you know about any possible risks you may face. They’ll also tell you if you can’t get the procedure because of certain implants that you have.

You’ll get one if you have trouble breathing or coughing after an injury to your spine -- this is an emergency situation.

The MRI also lets your doctor examine the small bones, called vertebrae, which make up your spinal column, as well as the spinal disks, spinal canal, and spinal cord. The test looks for:

  • Fractures in the vertebrae
  • Injuries
  • Infection
  • Swelling
  • Spinal cord problems
  • Bulging or slipped spinal disks
  • Tumors
  • Unusual parts or curves in your spine
  • Compression (or pressure) of your nerves or your spinal cord

Your doctor may also use a spine MRI to help plan surgeries on the spine, like for a pinched nerve, or for procedures like epidural or steroid shots.

If you have any of these symptoms, you might need a spinal MRI:

  • Lower back (lumbar) pain
  • Neck (cervical) pain
  • Mid-spinal (thoracic) pain (less common)
  • Pain radiating to arms and chest
  • Pain radiating to legs
  • Stiffness in your lower back area that restricts range of motion
  • You can’t maintain a normal posture because of stiffness and/or pain
  • Muscle spasms during activity or inactivity (resting)
  • Pain that lasts for 10-14 days
  • Loss of motor function in feet -- you can’t tiptoe or you do a “heel walk”
  • Loss of control of your bladder or bowels
  • Numbness or tingling in hands, fingers, feet or toes
  • Weakness or paralysis in any part of your body 
  • Difficulty walking and keeping your balance

MRI scans are considered safer than CT scans or X-rays. However, there are risks. MRIs use a magnet that creates a strong magnetic field. This can cause problems such as:

  • Pulling or moving medical devices inside your body

  • Heating devices and causing burns

  • Causing electrically active medical devices to malfunction

  • Causing Injuries if magnetic objects become projectiles

The presence of medical devices can also affect the quality of the MRI image. Your doctor will check beforehand to see if and what type of devices you may have and if it’s OK for you to get a scan.

Devices that aren’t or may not be compatible with MRI include:

  • Implants such as pacemakers, cochlear implants, stents and artificial joints. If you have any of these, your doctor or the MRI technologist may ask for the make and model of the device to see whether it’s safe for you to get an MRI.

  • Metal objects such as surgical clips, plates, screws or wire mesh. If you have these you may not be able to get an MRI on that part of your body.

  • External devices like an external insulin pump, leg brace, ventilator, patient monitor or wound dressing. They may prevent you from getting an MRI.

Other risks of MRI include:

  • Claustrophobia. Some people get this from having to go into the MRI tube or tunnel. You can take anti-anxiety medication ahead of the procedure to help with this or try an open MRI machine. 

  • Allergic reaction or sensitivity to contrast dye.Sometimes doctors use dyes with MRIs. Some people are allergic to these chemicals and shouldn’t get MRIs.

  • Possible effect on pregnancy/unborn child. There’s no evidence that an MRI has any adverse effect on a baby. However, doctors usually try to avoid MRIs during the first trimester of pregnancy.

  • Thermal Injuries or burns.An implanted medical device could heat up and burn you. Or you might come into contact with heated coils or cables in the scanner.

  • Hearing loss or ringing in the ears (tinnitus).High noise levels can cause hearing loss or ringing in the ears

  • Crushed or pinched fingers.Your hand could get stuck in the moving table you’re lying on.

  • Falls.You could fall off the table.

Usually you can eat, drink, and take medication as you normally do before the procedure. You may wear a gown, or your own clothes if they’re loose and don’t have any metal. You’ll need to remove any eyeglasseshearing aids, jewelry, your watch, body piercings, dentures, and other metal items.

Let your doctor know if you:

  • Have any serious health problems, such as kidney or liver disease
  • Recently had surgery
  • Have any allergies or asthma
  • Are pregnant, or think you may be
  • Wear a medicine patch

Your medical team will check to see if any implants or medical devices in your body are compatible with the MRI machine.

If you have tattoos or permanent makeup, talk to your doctor. Some inks contain iron that could heat up during the test.

If you don’t like being cooped up in small spaces or you’re nervous about the test, tell your doctor. They can give you medicine to help you relax.

An MRI machine is a long, narrow tube with both ends open. A magnet surrounds the tube. You lie on a table that slides into the tube.

Some MRI machines have much larger openings or are open on the sides so you don’t have to slide into a tube. They may be a good choice if you’re overweight or fear tight spaces. The doctor will decide which MRI machine will work best for you.

Before some MRIs, the doctor might need to inject a dye into a vein in your arm or hand. It helps them see any infection, tumor, or disk problem in your spine. The dye most often used in MRIs is called gadolinium. You might feel flush or cold for a few moments afterward. It can also leave a salty or metal taste in your mouth.

You’ll lie on the table that slides into the MRI machine. The doctor may use straps to help keep you in the right position during the test. A radiologist and technologist will be at a computer outside of the room. They can see, hear, and talk to you the whole time. Sometimes a family member or friend can stay in the room with you.

Often an MRI exam includes a number of runs, or sequences. Each run can last from a few seconds to several minutes. You have to stay very still during each one.

The MRI machine creates a strong magnetic field around you. A computer takes the signals from the MRI and uses them to make a series of pictures. Each picture shows a thin slice of your body.

You won’t feel any pain during the test. But you may feel warmth in the area of your spine being scanned. You’ll also hear a loud tapping or thumping when the image is being recorded. Earplugs or headsets can help block out the noise if it bothers you. You can even listen to music.

MRI scans can take from 30 minutes to an hour or more, depending on how much of your spine is being scanned.

After a spine MRI, you can go back to your normal activities right away. But if you had medicine to relax before the test, you’ll need to wait until it wears off.

Sometimes contrast dye can cause side effects. You might feel nauseated or have a headache, or you might have some pain where the dye was injected. An allergic reaction to the dye is rare. But if you get hives, itchy eyes, or any other symptoms, tell your radiologist right away.

A specially trained doctor called a radiologist will look over your spine MRI and report the results to your doctor. Your doctor will explain what they mean and what to do next.

It may take up to a week or more to get your results.