Can an MRI Reveal the Cause of Your Back Pain?


Can an MRI Reveal the Cause of Your Back Pain?

Lower back pain can have many different causes, from a muscle or ligament strain, arthritis, or osteoporosis, to more drastic causes like a tumor impinging on a nerve or a ruptured or herniated disc

When most people experience lower back pain, they usually do not consult a doctor right away. This sometimes makes sense, as everyone can experience minor back pain from time to time as a result of some physical activity, such as playing a strenuous game of tennis or picking weeds for an entire morning. For these routine ailments, sufficient rest and over-the-counter pain relievers are often enough to resolve a lower back pain problem in a few days.

However, there are times when back pain does not go away when the pain comes on suddenly as a result of an injury, or the pain is so severe that you know something more serious is at play. In these circumstances, you will want to see a doctor right away. However, a doctor cannot recommend an effective treatment plan unless and until the doctor knows what is causing your back pain. Consequently, in addition to asking you questions and performing an exam, your doctor is likely to order some diagnostic imaging tests. One type of imaging test is called an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test. An MRI can generate a detailed, high-quality image that can help a specialist correctly diagnose the cause of your pain.

What Is a Wide-Bore MRI?

An MRI is a diagnostic device that uses radio waves and a magnetic field to create an image of your internal tissues. MRIs are used for a wide number of medical complaints, and they are very helpful for diagnosing certain types of health issues in the lower back. The MRI produces internal images that can reveal spinal abnormalities, including degenerated discs, sciatica, and cancerous growths.

Many patients who have undergone an MRI experience physical discomfort and a feeling of claustrophobia as the machine moves them through the narrow “tunnel”. However, the latest MRI technology, called a wide-bore MRI, combines superior diagnostics with a higher level of patient comfort. The moving platform is more restful for the patient to lie on, and the “wide bore” is more open. At the St. Charles Spine Institute, we use the Optima MR450w system from GE Healthcare, an advanced MRI which features a wide bore. 

What Happens During an MRI?

A complete MRI scan usually takes about 30 minutes to complete, performed in short sequences of two to six minutes each. You prepare beforehand by wearing comfortable clothing, free of any metal parts like zippers, snaps, hooks, or buttons. Before being placed on the MRI platform, you will also have to be screened for any metal in your body, including any prosthetic joints, pacemakers or cardiac stents.  It is important to determine if these implants are MRI conditional (or compatible). In some cases, an intravenous contrast material called gadolinium will be given intravenously prior to the test. This substance enables the machine to produce clearer images.

During the test itself, you will lie on the platform. You will have to be very still as the machine moves you through the bore. Several series of images will be taken, and you will hear clicking noises during this process. Although the technologist is not in the same room as you, you and the technologist are able to communicate through an intercom. 

What Happens After the MRI?

After your MRI, you will meet with your doctor. Depending on what the MRI has revealed about the cause of your back pain, any number of different therapies may be recommended to address your particular problem. 

Thankfully, today, there is a wide range of therapies available for addressing lower back problems that were not available even a decade ago. Lumbar arthroplasty (artificial disc replacement in the lower back), steroid injections, stem-cell therapy, kyphoplasty, and sacroiliac fusion are some of the procedures that may be recommended to address your problem. The right procedure can often restore range of motion to patients with serious back problems, and enable you to obtain effective and long-term pain relief. 

Lower back pain is one of the most common causes that people cite for limiting their activities, especially as they age. Sometimes, lower back pain can become chronic, bothering people when they get out of bed or stand up, or after sitting for a while. If you have lower back pain, don’t assume that you simply have to live with it. With today’s diagnostic tools like wide-bore MRI and the ability of spine doctors to resolve serious back problems through the right therapy, you owe it to yourself to see a spinal specialist for a consultation. Schedule an appointment with the St. Charles Spine Institute today.

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