What Should I Expect from a Spine MRI? (with pictures)

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Sections of the spine.
Sections of the spine.

In a spine magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study, a piece of medical equipment will be used to get a series of pictures of a patient's spine to collect information about a spinal condition. During the study, the patient will need to lie very still inside a confined space within the MRI machine. The environment can be noisy, although headphones are usually provided to protect the patient's ears. After the scan is over, the images will be read and used to develop a treatment plan for the patient.

An MRI machine.
An MRI machine.

Doctors may recommend a spine MRI when a patient presents with back pain or signs of problems with the spinal nerves, such as abnormal sensation or loss of sensation. This test can also be requested for people who have experienced trauma to the spine, as physicians may be concerned about spinal cord injuries. People are often given spine MRIs after car accidents and serious falls, for example, sometimes even if no obvious symptoms of spinal damage are present, for safety reasons.

An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures of internal organs and bone structures.
An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures of internal organs and bone structures.

To prepare for a spine MRI, the patient will be asked to change into a hospital gown and to remove all jewelry. Metallic objects are not safe in and around an MRI machine, and patients who have had any kind of implant surgery should alert the technician. The patient may also be given other imaging studies at around the same time if a doctor wants to collect additional information, such as a simple X-ray to visualize the spine.

The length of time needed for a spine MRI varies with the portion of the spine that must be imaged.
The length of time needed for a spine MRI varies with the portion of the spine that must be imaged.

In some cases, a spine MRI requires the use of contrast dye. The contrast will help highlight certain structures on the image, making it crisper and easier to read and potentially illuminating things that would not be visible otherwise. In a spine MRI with contrast, the patient will be injected with the contrast agent before the test begins and will need to wait while it circulates. There is a small risk of experiencing an allergic reaction to the contrast, and patients should alert their doctors if they have any allergies.

Patients may undergo spinal X-rays before an MRI.
Patients may undergo spinal X-rays before an MRI.

During the test itself, the patient lies flat on a table that is pushed into the MRI machine. Padding and blankets are often provided for comfort, and some facilities play music to help patients relax during the scan. The length of time needed for a spine MRI varies, depending on how much of the spine is being imaged, and patients who are worried about claustrophobia may be able to access anti-anxiety medications to stay calm during the scan.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

fify

The first time I had a spine MRI, I didn't have ear plugs and it was very loud and uncomfortable. The second time, I had them and it was a breeze compared to the first time. I just closed my eyes and tried to relax. Without the noise, one could nap in there while the scan goes on.

bear78

@turkay1-- Mine lasted for twenty minutes but it can be longer depending on how much of the spine has to be imaged.

I had to be still inside the machine during that time. As far as I know, all spinal MRIs require being still. It can be a little tough because of the enclosed space and the noise, but I got through it.

My sister had a cervical spine MRI recently and she couldn't stay in it for more than five minutes because of claustrophobia. They ended up scheduling another session with her, this time with a semi-open MRI machine. So if you have claustrophobia issues, make sure to mention this to your doctor so that they can make the necessary arrangements.

candyquilt

On average, how long does a spine MRI take? Is it okay to move inside the MRI machine or do I have to be still?

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    • Sections of the spine.
      Sections of the spine.
    • An MRI machine.
      An MRI machine.
    • An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures of internal organs and bone structures.
      An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures of internal organs and bone structures.
    • The length of time needed for a spine MRI varies with the portion of the spine that must be imaged.
      The length of time needed for a spine MRI varies with the portion of the spine that must be imaged.
    • Patients may undergo spinal X-rays before an MRI.
      Patients may undergo spinal X-rays before an MRI.
    • The diagnosis of a herniated disc and many other spinal issues are most commonly confirmed using an MRI.
      The diagnosis of a herniated disc and many other spinal issues are most commonly confirmed using an MRI.