Spine and Brain MRI

What is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the spine and brain?

Magnetic resonance of the spine and brain is an imaging test that lets your doctor see detailed pictures of you’re the brain, spine and the spinal cord. It can help identify inflammation, bleeding, nerve root compression and other problems.
MRI may be used instead of CT when organs or soft tissue are being studied. This is because bones don't obscure the images of organs and soft tissues, as does CT scanning.

Why might I need an MRI of the spine and brain?

MRI may be used to check the brain or spinal cord for injuries, the presence of structural abnormalities, or certain other conditions, such as:

  • Tumours
  • Collections of pus (abscesses)
  • Problems of the spine or brain you are born with (congenital)
  • Weakening and ballooning of an artery (aneurysm)
  • Abnormal and dilated veins (venous malformations)
  • Bleeding into the brain or spinal cord
  • Area of bleeding just under the covering of the brain (subdural hematoma)
  • Degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis
  • Problem in the brain caused by lack of oxygen (hypoxic encephalopathy)
  • Inflammation or infection of the brain (encephalomyelitis)
  • Fluid in the brain (hydrocephalus)
  • Cause of epilepsy (seizures)
  • Pituitary gland disorders
  • Herniation or degeneration of disks of the spine

MRI may also be used to help plan surgeries of the spine, such as decompression of a pinched nerve or spinal fusion. MRI can be used to look for problems after surgery, such as scarring or infection. It can also help to identify the specific part of the brain controlling a function, such as speech or memory, to help in treating a condition of the brain.

Are there any risks?

Because of the strong magnet in an MRI scanner, MRI cannot be used if you have:
  • Implanted pacemaker or cardiac defibrillator
  • Some older intracranial aneurysm clips
  • Cochlear implants
  • Certain prosthetic devices
  • Implanted medicine infusion pumps or medicine ports
  • Neurostimulators
  • Bone-growth stimulators
  • Certain intrauterine contraceptive devices
  • Any other type of iron-based metal implants
  • Tattoos or body piercings
  • Internal metal objects or fragments, such as bullets or shrapnel, surgical clips, pins, plates, screws, metal sutures, or wire mesh

Tell your clinician if you are pregnant or think you may be. In general, there is no known risk of MRI in pregnancy. But in the first trimester, MRI should only be used to look at very important problems or suspected problems.
If contrast dye is used, there is a risk for allergic reaction to the dye. Tell your provider if you are allergic or sensitive to medicines, contrast dye, or iodine.
Nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF) is a very rare but serious complication of MRI contrast use in people with kidney disease or kidney failure. If you have a history of kidney disease, kidney failure, kidney transplant, liver disease, or are on dialysis, be sure to tell the MRI radiographer before getting the contrast dye.
There may be other risks depending on your specific health condition. Be certain The radiographer knows about all of your health conditions.
Tell the radiographer doing the test if you:
  • Have ever had an imaging test (like MRI or CT) with contrast dye
  • Are allergic to contrast dye or any medicines
  • Have a serious health problem. This includes diabetes or kidney disease
  • Are pregnant or may be pregnant or are breastfeeding
  • Have any implanted device or metal clips or pins in your body

How do I get ready for an MRI of the spine and brain?

The radiographer will explain the procedure to you and give you a chance to ask questions. Make a list of questions and discuss these and any concerns with The radiographer before the procedure. Consider bringing a family member or trusted friend to the medical appointment if you are feeling nervous about the MRI scan.
If your procedure involves the use of contrast dye, you will be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully and ask questions if anything is not clear.
Generally, you don't need to fast or limit any activities before an MRI procedure.
Before the MRI, it is very important that you tell the radiographer if any of the following apply to you:
  • You are claustrophobic and think that you will be unable to lie still inside the scanning machine, in which case you may be given a sedative
  • You have a pacemaker or have had heart valves replaced
  • You have any type of implanted pump, such as an insulin pump
  • You have metal plates, pins, metal implants, surgical staples, or aneurysm clips
  • You have any metal fragments anywhere in the body
  • You have permanent eyeliner or tattoos
  • You are pregnant or think you may be pregnant
  • You have ever had a bullet wound
  • You have ever worked with metal (for example, a metal grinder or welder)
  • You have any body piercings
  • You have an intrauterine device (IUD)
  • You are wearing a medicine patch
You may take medicine (sedative) to help you relax before the procedure if you are claustrophobic, this will need to be prescribed by your GP or consultant. Please plan to have someone accompany you home afterward.
Based on your health condition, the radiographer may have other instructions for you on how to get ready.

What happens during an MRI of the spine and brain?

Generally, MRI of the spine and brain follows this process:
  1. You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewellery, eyeglasses, hearing aids, hairpins, removable dental work, or other objects that may get in the way of the procedure.
  2. If you are asked to remove clothing, you will be given a gown to wear.
  3. If you are to have an MRI with contrast, an IV (intravenous) line will be inserted in your hand or arm for injection of the contrast dye.
  4. You will lie on a narrow table that slides into the large circular opening of the scanning machine. Pillows and straps may be used to help prevent movement during the scan.
  5. The radiographer will be in another room where the scanner controls are located. However, you will be in constant sight of the radiographer through a window. Speakers inside the scanner allow radiographer to talk to you and hear you. You will have a call button so that you can let the radiographer know if you have any problems during the procedure. The radiographer will be watching you at all times and will be in constant communication.
  6. You will be given earplugs or a headset to wear to help block out the noise from the scanner. Some headsets may provide music for you to listen to. During the scanning process, you will hear clicking and thumping noises as the magnetic field is created and pulses of radio waves are sent from the scanner.
  7. It will be important for you to stay very still during the exam. Any movement could cause distortion and affect the quality of the scan.
  8. If contrast dye is used, you may feel some effects when the dye is injected into the IV line.
  9. You should tell the radiographer right away if you feel any breathing difficulties, sweating, numbness, or heart palpitations.
  10. Once the scan is done, the table will slide out of the scanner and you will be helped off the table.
  11. If an IV line was put in, it will be removed.

While the MRI itself causes no pain, having to lie still for the length of the procedure might cause some discomfort or pain, particularly if you’ve recently been injured or had surgery. The radiographer will use all possible comfort measures and complete the procedure as quickly as possible to reduce any discomfort or pain. If you take regular pain medication, it is recommended you take this as normal on the day of the scan.
On occasion, some people with metal fillings in their teeth may experience some slight tingling of the teeth during the procedure.

What happens after an MRI of the spine and brain?

Move slowly when getting up from the scanner table to avoid any dizziness or light-headedness from lying flat for the length of the procedure.
If contrast dye is used, you may be monitored for a period for any side effects or reactions to the contrast dye, such as itching, swelling, rash, or difficulty breathing.
If you notice any pain, redness, and/or swelling at the IV site after you go home, tell your healthcare professional as this could be a sign of infection or other type of reaction.
Otherwise, there is no special type of care needed after a MRI scan of the spine and brain. You may go back to your usual diet and activities, unless your healthcare professional tells you differently.
Last updated17 Feb 2021
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