Diagnosing neck or back pain with a CT scan

A computed tomography scan (also known as a CT scan or CAT scan) uses X-rays and computer processing to create 3-D views of the inside of the body. Unlike regular X-ray images, CT scans use X-rays taken from various angles to create a cross-sectional view of the spine and other bony structures.

Another feature that sets a CT scan apart from a regular X-ray is its ability to use injected contrast dye to see soft tissues, such as intervertebral discs and blood vessels. A CT scan that incorporates contrast is an excellent way to visualize a herniated disc or spinal fracture.

How are CT scans performed?

A CT scanner looks a little like a donut with a tongue depressor pushed through the center. The tongue depressor is a table on which the patient lays. It is passed through a donut hole called the gantry. Inside the gantry, a spinning X-ray beam takes images from all angles as it passes through the patient in 360 degrees of motion. While the scanner is running, it may emit either soft or slightly louder noise. Some patients find these noises frightening, but they are normal and completely harmless.

After the scanner has collected the X-ray images, it feeds them to a computer. The computer then calculates densities in each cross-section being studied and creates images for the physician to review.

MRI versus CT scans

Patients often ask about the differences between an MRI scan and a CT scan. They also want to know if one test is better than the other. The truth is that both tests are valuable diagnostic tools. They are each better at different things.

MRI scans are better for imaging water containing tissue. An MRI can be better at detecting abnormalities of the spinal cord, bulging discs, a small disc herniation, pinched nerves and other soft tissue problems. MRIs may also be used in cases where the X-rays are contraindicated (unadvisable), such as with pregnant women. However, people with pacemakers or other metallic implants may not be able to undergo an MRI because of the powerful magnetic field used in the test.

A CT scan is better than an MRI for imaging calcified tissues, like bones. CT scans produce excellent detail used to diagnose osteoarthritis and fractures. In many cases, a CT scan is less useful than an MRI. In the case of very obvious ruptured discs, CT scans may be effective diagnostic tools. Although, the image of less advanced prolapsed discs may not be as clear.

At Laser Spine Institute, we offer a no-cost review of your MRI or CT scan* to determine if you are a potential candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery.

Contact our dedicated team today to see if our outpatient procedures would be beneficial in treating your chronic neck or back pain.