How does a Doctor Review a Spine MRI Scan?

In Health and Wellness

What is Spine MRI Scan

If you have chronic back pain, your doctor may have recommended an MRI scan of your spine to assess what’s going on. MRIs are safe and help doctors diagnose both serious and mild conditions that could be contributing to your back pain.

What is an MRI?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology is a frequently-used diagnostic tool that allows physicians to see the inside of your body and capture images of organs, bones, tissues, and other internal structures.

MRIs work by using a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce signals which create flat and 3D images. The machines used to perform MRIs are usually large and cylindrical, with a flat bed in the center for the patient to lie on.  

Why are MRIs performed on the spine?

Physicians use the MRI procedure to assess a patient’s spinal anatomy. This diagnostic imaging test is done to discover any conditions that are contributing to someone’s chronic back pain. Skilled pain management specialists use MRIs after listening to a patient’s symptoms and experience with back pain to look for a source.

Spine MRIs can be used to examine all parts of the spine, and the three main segments of the spine that can be analyzed with diagnostic imaging are:

  • Cervical. This is the upper part of the spine, consisting of seven vertebrae.
  • Thoracic. The Thoracic spine is the center area, consisting of twelve vertebrae bones.
  • Lumbar. The lumbar spine is the lower portion, with five vertebrae.

MRIs can also be used to examine the sacrum, which is below the lumbar spine and connects the spine to the pelvis.


What types of MRI machines are most commonly used?

Closed MRI machine

Closed MRIs take place in a machine that is shaped like a narrow tunnel. Usually, the opening of a closed MRI machine is just 60 centimeters and the patient must lie on a table that slides in it for up to 90 minutes.  

Open MRI machine

Open MRI machines offer patients who have issues with claustrophobia a less anxiety-inducing MRI experience. This machine has a wider opening than that of the closed MRI machine and not only alleviates anxiety for some patients but can better fit patients with obesity. The downside of an open MRI is the diagnostic imaging it creates is not as detailed as that of a closed MRI machine.


When is a Spinal MRI scan recommended?

Your health provider may recommend an MRI if your symptoms align with those of a spinal cord injury or structural abnormality. MRIs give doctors a specific view of what’s going on within the spinal structure which can help them identify the exact area that is causing issues. This is especially important in situations where spine surgery is necessary as it allows doctors to create a targeted treatment plan.

Lumbar spine MRIs are usually recommended if you have recently injured your lower back, have severe or persistent lumbar pain, or are experiencing any weakness or numbness in your legs.


What can an MRI scan reveal about back or neck pain?

MRI scans can reveal many different forms of spinal structural issues, injuries, and inflammation that are causing a patient’s back or neck pain. The following conditions are some of the most commonly identified during diagnostic imaging scans.

Disc desiccation

This condition involves a degeneration of the discs that provide cushioning between each vertebra of the spine. As people age, the vertebral discs begin to lose their lubricating fluid, causing them to stop functioning properly. Disc desiccation is a common result of degenerative disc disease.

The symptoms of disc desiccation include back stiffness, pain, and weakness. The location of the pain will depend on where the degenerating discs are located along the spine. These symptoms can travel down one or both legs and may affect reflexes in the knees and feet.


Spinal cord compression can occur in any region of the spine from the upper (cervical) spine to the lower (lumbar) spine. Compression takes place when an underlying condition is putting pressure on the spinal cord, gradually weakening the bones of the spine. 

MRIs can give a detailed look at bone growths called bone spurs and any abnormal spinal alignment that is contributing to compression. Symptoms of this condition include back pain and stiffness, numbness, loss of sensation in the feet, and issues with coordination.


Inflammation of tissue and structures along the spine can cause lower back pain, neck pain, numbness, and a gradual loss of muscle strength. Several conditions can cause spinal inflammation including Ankylosing spondylitis and Rheumatoid arthritis.

Magnetic resonance imaging can provide a detailed view of inflamed structures that are contributing to your back pain.

Our pain management experts frequently treat conditions identified in MRIs such as degenerative disc disease and spinal cord compression. Our minimally-invasive pain management techniques could provide you with the relief you need to get back to enjoying your life.


Frequently Asked Questions

How long does an MRI spine scan take?

Spine MRIs can take up to 90 minutes for a complete scan.

What should I do the night before my MRI?

You do not need to do anything special to prepare for an MRI the night before. Eat normally and continue to take your prescribed medications. Before the scan, you will be asked to change into a gown and remove any accessories or articles that can interfere with imaging.

Will MRI show pinched nerves?

Magnetic resonance imaging can help show structural abnormalities in the spine that could be adding pressure to spinal nerves.

Can an MRI show sciatica?

If you have symptoms of sciatica, an MRI may be used to identify the causes of your back pain which could include lumbar spinal stenosis, facet arthritis, or a herniated disc.

When do you need a spine MRI?

If your back pain is affecting your daily activities or is starting to feel worse, it may be worth requesting a spine MRI to get a closer look at what’s going on internally.

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Holly Self is a Graphic Design Specialist for Physician Partners of America. Headquartered in Tampa, Fla., Physician Partners of America (PPOA) is a fast-growing national healthcare company committed to combatting the opioid crisis through interventional pain management. Founded in 2013 with three employees, it has rapidly grown to more than 500, and manages a wide range of medical practices.

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