MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging, is used by doctors to diagnose many health conditions, including back and neck conditions like spinal stenosis, which is essentially a narrowing of the spinal canal.
An MRI is a noninvasive, typically painless test that lasts anywhere from 15-60 minutes. During the test, you lie on a table and are passed through the middle of a long tube. You will be asked to remain as still as possible while powerful magnets in the tube send signals toward your body. These signals pass through the body, and, in turn, are picked up by radio waves that are sent to a scanner and then to a computer, where cross-sectional images, or image “slices” of your body, are recorded for later review and analysis by physicians.
Sometimes, internal medical devices, such as pacemakers, plates, or screws, can interfere with the imaging process, so an MRI technician will want to know if you have any such devices in your body. Most people don’t receive any type of medication before an MRI, but there are times when an MRI contrasting agent will be given to a patient, either orally or through an injection. Additionally, claustrophobic patients are often offered anti-anxiety medication before an MRI is conducted.
In recent years, “open” MRI machines also have been developed, which are better suited for patients who might experience trouble in the confined space of an MRI tube. Children, claustrophobic patients, and larger patients often are good candidates for an open MRI machine.
MRI technology is known for its ability to show excellent contrast between different tissues within the body such as muscle, bone, and nerve fibers, allowing doctors to see the spinal column and any other part of the body in great detail.
An MRI of the spinal column may detect:
- Narrowing of the spinal canal, anywhere from the neck to the lower back
- Damage to, or enlargement of, soft tissues such as herniated discs, bulging discs, or degenerated discs
- Pinched, inflamed, or compressed nerve roots
- Postoperative scarring or infection
If an MRI picks up any of these conditions that indicate spinal stenosis, your physician will use this information in conjunction with a physical examination, mobility tests, and possibly x-rays or CT scans, to determine the next course of action. Spinal stenosis treatments may include rest, exercise, pain medication, corticosteroid injections, or perhaps even surgery.