An MRI scan may be used for a back pain diagnosis

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is one type of scan that can be used for diagnosing back pain. The images produced by MRIs are more detailed than those produced by standard X-rays, showing the spinal cord, muscles, ligaments and tendons in much greater detail. This can help a physician detect various abnormalities in a patient’s spine.

What is an MRI scan?

Unlike X-rays, which use ionizing radiation to produce images of the body, MRI scans use powerful magnets. These magnets cause the water molecules in the body to align in a specific way. A radiofrequency current is then used to make these molecules strain against the pull of the magnetic field. While this is happening, a scanner moves around the body to produce images of the bones and soft tissues. A contrast agent may also be used to make the resulting images more pronounced.

What kind of back problems can an MRI reveal?

An MRI for back pain can help a physician detect a number of common spinal conditions, including:

  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Herniated discs
  • Spinal stenosis

Magnetic resonance imaging can also help a physician rule out certain spine conditions, such as tumors and infections.

As with any diagnostic test, there are certain limitations to MRI imaging. Because this type of scan only shows the body’s anatomical structure, it may not be conclusive if a person has a relatively healthy spine. Similarly, a bone or joint that appears to be damaged may not be the actual or only cause of a person’s pain.

When to talk to your physician about diagnostic imaging

There are many instances in which back pain goes away on its own after a short period of time. Diagnostic imaging may not be necessary in these situations, provided that the pain is only present for a few days or weeks and the discomfort can be managed with at-home measures.

If pain persists for more than several days or does not respond to over-the-counter medications, hot/cold therapy, exercise and stretching, it can be helpful to turn to a physician for diagnostic imaging. An orthopedic specialist can help you determine if an X-ray, CT scan, MRI or similar test would be helpful for diagnosing your back pain. A physical exam and medical history will typically be performed as well. From there, a clinical diagnosis can be made, and you can begin exploring additional options for treatment.