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Lumbar Spine MRI Test: Purpose, Procedure, and Risks

Lumbar Spine MRI Test: Purpose, Procedure, and Risks

Tripment, Inc
Tripment Health Team

Lumbar spine MRI: what is it?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the most advanced diagnostic procedure in modern neuroradiology. There are no side effects, and it is distinguished from other types of imaging by providing the highest information content, and by being completely painless and safe. A lumbar spine MRI allows you to obtain the highest resolution image of internal structures available, and it does not utilize ionizing X-rays, which can be dangerous to humans.

What does a lumbar spine MRI show?

An MRI image of the lumbar spine clearly shows the bone tissue of spinal column elements, as well as ligaments, the epidural space, and individual nerve trunks coming out of the spinal canal. Such a clear and detailed visualization of anatomy can reveal pinched nerves or other causes of back pain. Also, magnetic resonance imaging makes it possible to study the functional state of spinal arteries without direct puncture of blood vessels.

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Need a lumbar spine MRI?

An MRI of the lumbar spine shows the spinal column and surrounding anatomy to reveal the causes of back pain.

How do I prepare for a lumbar spine MRI?

Special preparation is not required, but it is worth noting a few points:

  • It is necessary to remove all metal objects from your body (prostheses, pendants, chains, phones, etc.)
  • You must notify your doctor of any foreign objects in the body, such as pins, plates, wire mesh, or shrapnel
  • Bring any relevant preliminary examination results with you

What happens during a lumbar spine MRI procedure?

The lumbar MRI without contrast follows these steps:

  • The patient lays on a movable table
  • The doctor fixes the patient and slides the table into the tomograph
  • During the examination, the patient must remain motionless throughout the procedure to obtain a clear image
  • Layer-by-layer images are taken using a magnetic coil and transmitted to a radiologist for examination
  • Once the imaging is complete, the patient receives an interpretation report and a snapshot

In some cases, your doctor may request an MRI with contrast. A contrast agent is injected into the vein before the procedure, then the tomographic examination is performed. 

How long does an MRI of the lumbar spine take?

The duration of the procedure depends on the need to use a contrast agent and the type of tomograph. MRI of the lumbar spine can take from 15 minutes up to 1 hour.

Lumbar spine MRI results

A normal lumbar spine MRI will show that the vertebrae are smooth. Fibrous-cartilaginous discs, acting as shock absorbers, should not protrude, and they should exhibit a standard height without signs of degeneration. The spinal cord should look like a white cord without visible distortions and other changes.

In pathological processes, images from a lumbar spine MRI can demonstrate:

  • A curvature of the spinal column - scoliosis, lordosis, or kyphosis
  • Malignant and benign neoplasms
  • Metastasis to the vertebrae
  • Cystic cavities
  • Dislocations and fractures of the vertebrae, sprains, or long-term consequences of trauma
  • A protrusion, degenerative changes (spondylodiscitis, osteochondrosis, etc.), hernias, signs of involvement in the pathological process of spinal roots
  • Lesion of endplates
  • Myeloishemia
  • Areas of narrowing of the spinal canal, compression, or damage to the spinal cord
doctor diagnose spine lumber vertebrae x-ray image on digital tablet for diagnose Herniated disc disease with radiologic technologist team

How to read a lumbar spine MRI?

Detecting disease at an early stage can be a difficult task, even for a doctor, but MRIs remain the best diagnostic tool for detecting the smallest changes in the structure of the lumbar spine. An abnormal lumbar MRI can indicate dislocation of the disc even by 1 mm - the beginning of a pathological process called protrusion. If, as the disease progresses, the integrity of the fibrous ring is violated, a hernia develops.

Dystrophic changes, like a decrease in the height of the vertebral bodies, are diagnosed mainly in age-related patients suffering from osteochondrosis. This can show up in an abnormal MRI of the lumbar spine. A sedentary lifestyle, excessive physical exertion, obesity, or congenital anomalies are the main risk factors for the development of these types of diseases. During the MRI scan of the lumbar spine, the cervical, thoracic, and lumbosacral sections are examined. The doctor will determine the area of interest based on other symptoms.

The lumbar spine is the most mobile section of the spine, so most pathological processes are localized in this area. The MRI image visualizes the lumbar spine across three planes: axial, coronary (frontal), and sagittal. One of these planes will be considered primary, based on the location of the injury or condition, and images of the other two planes are used to help clarify and offer more details. When deciphering the MRI results, if no malformations are revealed, the joints and discs are located in their correct places, and all structures are healthy without abnormal bone growth, your doctor will likely decide that everything is fine and no treatment is needed. 

What are the risks of a lumbar spine MRI?

Magnetic resonance imaging is a safe, non-invasive method of imaging. Lumbar spine MRI cannot bring harm to the body since it has nothing to do with radiation. Tomographs create an electromagnetic field around the body, allowing for a detailed scan. The disadvantages of the procedure, which can cause discomfort to some patients, include:

  • Loud noise
  • The need to remain stationary for a long time 
  • Closed-in space that can induce claustrophobia or nervousness

MRI of a lumbar spine may be dangerous under the following conditions:

  • Ferromagnetic or electronic middle ear implants
  • Prosthetic heart valves
  • Installed pacemaker/neurostimulator/rhythm driver
  • Large metal implants, ferromagnetic fragments
  • Patient's body weight is in excess of 220 lbs
  • Pregnancy in the first trimester
  • The patient has non-removable dentures or braces

How much does a lumbar spine MRI cost? 

MRI of the lumbar spine cost can vary. The average price in the U.S. is $1,700 for a lumbar spine MRI with contrast. However, depending on whether the procedure is done at a hospital or outpatient facility, the cost can run up to $4,000. Certain insurance policies may cover some of the costs, but high-deductible plans often leave patients paying for the full cost out-of-pocket. At Tripment Health, you can find an MRI of the lumbar spine that costs far less than going through insurance, starting at just $360. 

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