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MRI of the Spine

(Cervical, Thoracic & Lumbar)

An MRI of the spine shows the anatomy of the vertebrae that make up the spine, as well as the disks, spinal cord and the spaces between the vertebrae through which nerves pass. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a noninvasive medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions. MRI imaging uses a powerful magnetic field, radio frequency pulses and a computer to produce detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and virtually all other internal body structures.

MRI does not use ionizing radiation (X-rays). Detailed MR images allow physicians to better evaluate various parts of the body and determine the presence of certain diseases that may not be assessed adequately with other imaging methods such as X-ray, ultrasound or computed tomography (also called CT or CAT scanning).

Your doctor may recommend a MRI of the spine to:

  • Assess the spinal anatomy
  • Visualize anatomical variations and diseased tissue in the spine
  • Help plan surgeries on the spine such as decompression of a pinched nerve or spinal fusion
  • Monitor changes in the spine after an operation, such as scarring or infection
  • Guide the injection of steroids to relieve spinal pain
  • Assess the disks - bulging, degenerated or herniated intervertebral disk-a frequent cause of severe lower back pain and sciatica
  • Evaluate compressed (or pinched) and inflamed nerves
  • Explore possible causes in patients with back pain (compression fracture for example)
  • Image spinal infection or tumors that arise in, or have spread to, the spine

MRI examinations may be performed on outpatients or inpatients. You will be positioned on the movable examination table. Straps and bolsters may be used to help you stay still and maintain the correct position during imaging. Small devices that contain coils capable of sending and receiving radio waves may be placed around or adjacent to the area of the body being studied. Depending on the location of symptoms, only part of the spine may be imaged. For example, the cervical (neck) portion, the thoracic (chest) spine or the lumbar (lower) spine.

If a contrast material will be used in the MRI exam, a nurse or technologist will insert an intravenous (IV) line into a vein in your hand or arm. A saline solution may be used. The solution will drip through the IV to prevent blockage of the IV line until the contrast material is injected. You will be moved into the magnet of the MRI unit and the radiologist and technologist will leave the room while the MRI examination is performed. When the examination is completed, you may be asked to wait until the technologist or radiologist checks the images in case additional images are needed. Your intravenous line will be removed. MRI exams generally include multiple runs (sequences), some of which may last several minutes. The entire examination is usually completed within 45 minutes.

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