MRI tests and the spine

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is the test most commonly used to look at the spine. It uses magnetic waves instead of radiation. An MRI –scanner creates a magnetic field 30 000 times as strong as that of the earth, around a person and uses radio waves to create cross-sectional images of particular parts of your body. The MRI scanner allows us to see not only the bones of the spine, but the nerves and the discs as well.

When this magnetic field is applied to the body, the hydrogen molecules in your body line up with the magnetic field. Your body then produces faint signals in response to the radio waves, which are then used to produce computer images. These images can then be used to create three-dimensional representations of parts of your body, which can be viewed on a screen.

There are no known harmful effects from being exposed to this magnetic field or radio waves.

The MRI-scanner is a large magnet that has a central opening, usually about 70 cm off the ground. The patient lies on a moveable table that slides into this machine. A technologist will be in an adjacent room, and is usually contactable by microphone. This examination can take between half an hour to an hour and a half. During this time, the patient must breathe regularly and lie completely still. If the patient feels claustrophobic or anxious, a sedative may be given.

After the examination, the radiologist will study the images and be able to see whether any organs, blood vessels, bones or soft tissue are of abnormal size or in the wrong position. The presence of growths will also be noted.

MRI tests are expensive – more so than X-rays or CAT scans, but they are much more accurate. The test is painless and there is no danger of radiation and it provides accurate images of organs that would otherwise not be detectable.

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