An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses radio waves and a strong magnet to take clear pictures of internal organs and tissue.
A cervical MRI is used to examine neck and spinal cord injuries, as well as structural abnormalities such as tumors and other conditions. The 3D images generated by these scans help doctors learn more about the patient’s bone and soft tissues to help made a diagnosis.
How an MRI Works and What an MRI Shows
An MRI machine is cylindrical and large enough for a patient on a medical bed to pass inside. The MRI creates a magnetic field around the patient, altering the natural alignment of hydrogen atoms in the body. As the cell’s nuclei realign back to normal position, the nuclei send out radio waves. These waves are captured by a computer, which converts the signals into a 2D image. The MRI images are very detailed, allowing the radiologist to see different types of tissue in the same organ.
The images produced by MRI scans help to diagnose:
- Bulging or herniated discs
- A compressed spinal cord or nerves
- Damage to the joints in the back of the neck (facets)
- Tumors in the soft tissues or bones
- Bone abnormalities
A cervical MRI specifically scans the neck and are used to diagnose the cause of a patient’s neck pain, especially if the patient’s pain hasn’t subsided with basic treatment. A cervical MRI may also be ordered if a patient is experiencing numbness or weakness in their arms or hands. Cervical MRI scans may reveal spinal deformities, trauma, infection, scoliosis, or tumors.
How to Prepare for an MRI Scan
As preparation protocols differ between MRI facilities, it’s important to follow the directions given by your doctor. Directions may include eating or drinking restriction, removing jewelry or clothing containing metal, or wearing a hospital gown.
Tell your doctor about any of the following conditions before getting an MRI scan, as they may limit your ability to receive the scan:
- Kidney problems or diabetes (if your MRI will use contrast dye)
What to Expect During an MRI Scan
MRI scans can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. Before the scan begins, you’ll lay on a bed attached to the MRI machine, with your head on a headrest and your arms by your sides. The MRI technician will likely provide you with earplugs, as the MRI scan produces loud knocking noises when running. You may also be given the option to listen to music.
If your scan involves contrast dye, the dye will be injected into an IV line connected to your hand or arm. The dye is used to see blood vessels and tumors in more detail.
Before the table slides into the machine, a frame will be placed over your head and neck, which helps focus the machine’s energy to produce even more precise images. You’ll also be given a device to hold in your hand, which you can use at any point during the scan to signal for help during the test.
You’ll be asked to hold very still while the test is running, and the technician will give you updates throughout the scan. Scans are entirely painless, though some patients report feeling uneasy due to the tight space inside the MRI. If you struggle with claustrophobia, your doctor might prescribe an antianxiety medication to make you more comfortable during the scan. It’s also normal for some patients to feel warmth where the pictures are taken.
Receiving Your MRI Results
Though a radiologist will interpret the results of the scan, your doctor will give you the results. Your doctor will explain the results and discuss the next course of action.
Talk with a surgeon or physician to discuss if the next step in dealing with your neck pain is a cervical MRI scan.