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Fixing Back Pain: Can a Lumbar Spine MRI Help?

As we age, back pain seems to become just a part of life. It’s estimated that 80 per cent of adults in the UK will suffer from lower back pain. It's one of the largest contributors to missed workdays. Not only can back pain affect your ability to work, but it can also wreak havoc on your everyday life. Putting away groceries, playing with your kids, even getting out of bed can become a challenge. It's annoying and not knowing the cause can be even more frustrating.

Your back pain could be muscular, the result of a pinched nerve, or an even more serious spinal condition. The only way to know for sure is through an MRI of the lumbar spine. This diagnostic procedure can rule out any potentially serious spinal issues and can help you get back to living a pain-free life.

Opting to have a lumbar MRI can be nerve-wracking for some people, and accepting your back pain is serious enough to undergo this procedure can bring up feelings of anxiety. But finding out if there is a bigger issue at play is the first step in your potential recovery process. If you have been experiencing lower back pain and are considering an MRI scan, following along as we discuss what to expect from the procedure.

What is Your Lumbar Spine?

The lumbar spine refers to the last five vertebrae between your ribs and your pelvis. The vertebrae are referred to as:

These vertebrae are larger compared to the rest of your spine. This is because they are designed to absorb more shock. The vertebrae also protect your spinal cord and nerves. Between the L1 and L2 vertebrae, the spinal cord ends and tapers into the conus medullaris. Nerves from the lower trunk feed into this structure, then into your spinal cord, and finally to your brain stem. Each vertebra is separated by a cartilage ring called an intervertebral disc, usually referred to as a disc.

If any of these structures are damaged or have an abnormality, they can cause lower back pain.

What Do You See in a Lumbar MRI?

A lumbar magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will be able to show doctors several structures including,

An MRI takes individual images, called slices, across three planes. These images allow radiologists to see a snapshot of what is occurring in your lower spine as they move across each plane.

This imaging gives the opportunity to identify:

It is important to catch these potential causes of pain quickly. This allows for early medical intervention to relieve your lower back pain.

Why Do I Need a Lumbar MRI Scan?

Several symptoms would cause your doctor to order a lumbar MRI scan. These include:

  • Spinal defects at birth
  • Chronic lower back pain
  • Spinal injury
  • Back pain accompanied by fever
  • Weakness, numbness in your legs
  • These can all signify something occurring in your spine, or spinal column. For example, a herniated disc can apply pressure to your spinal cord, this pressure on the nerves can present itself in any area of your lower body. The only way to determine is through an MRI scan. The scan will show which nerves are being compressed and where the treatment needs to be focused.

    Can a Lumbar MRI Detect Nerve Damage?

    A lumbar MRI is a prognostic tool used to identify the anatomy of the lower spine. It can identify the bones, cartilage, spinal cord, and spaces the nerves travel through the spine. While the procedure can't identify damage to the nerve, the scan can identify compression. This compression could be caused by a herniated disc, or a tumour pressing against the nerve. When the results of the MRI are combined with the symptoms the patient is experiencing, a diagnosis can be made.

    How Do You Read an MRI Lumbar Scan?

    Once you understand how an MRI is taken, you will be able to better understand what you are looking at in the results.

    An MRI scan takes images over three planes:

  • Axial - from top to bottom
  • Sagittal - from one side to the other
  • Coronal - from front to back
  • As if you were slicing an apple from one side to the other, each apple slice represents an MRI image as it moves across the spine, along a single plane. The images produced show varying colours that represent the structures in the lumbar spine.

    It takes a trained radiologist to find the nuances in colour changes to identify inflammation, tumours, fractures, and obstructions. The results of your scan can be used to correlate your symptoms and find the root cause of your discomfort.

    How Long Does a Lumbar MRI Take?

    A typical lumbar MRI scan takes approximately 10–30 minutes to complete. In some instances, a contrast material is needed to highlight specific structures in the spine. If this is the case, the procedure will take longer.

    How is a Lumbar MRI Performed?

    A lumbar MRI scan is a non-invasive diagnostic procedure. It is pain-free and does not require any recovery time.

    Similar to other MRI scans, you will be asked to change into a hospital gown. Some centres will allow you to wear loose-fitting clothing if it's more comfortable for you, but each centre will have its policies.

    You will be instructed to lay down on the MRI table, the technician may use straps, foam blocks, or other devices to ensure your spine is in the correct alignment. If you experience any discomfort, inform the technician and they will do their best to make you comfortable.

    The table will slide into a doughnut-shaped machine. There are two common types:

    1. Standard MRI - this will look like a long cylindrical tube.
    2. Short-bore MRI - the tube of this MRI is about half the size of a standard MRI.

    A short-bore MRI performs the same function, however is more favourable for those suffering from claustrophobia.

    The machine will make loud humming and banging noises throughout the scan. This is to be expected and should cause no alarm. The loud noises can be startling, making it difficult to stay still during the procedure. Therefore most clinics offer earplugs to make you more comfortable.

    Once the scan is complete the technician will go over the images, during this time you may have to wait a few minutes. Once the technician approves the images you are free to return to your daily activities.

    A radiologist will review your scan and send the results to your doctor. You will be contacted by your doctor’s office to schedule an appointment to discuss the results of your MRI lumbar scan.

    In Conclusion

    Almost 4 out of 5 people in the UK will suffer from back pain in their lifetime. It’s currently the leading cause of disability. It can be a hassle to deal with and it can be challenging to admit you need to see your doctor. But diagnosis is the first step in your recovery journey.

    At National MRI Scan we offer appointments up to six times faster than the NHS.

    If you are tired of experiencing lower back pain, make an appointment at one of our MRI centres and let us help get you back to living pain-free.


    References

    1. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007352.htm
    2. https://aica.com/will-nerve-damage-show-up-on-an-mri/
    3. https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=abq5157
    4. https://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=spinemr
    5. https://rockymountainbrainandspineinstitute.com/understanding-mri-lumbar-spine/
    6. https://www.healthline.com/health/back-pain/lower-back-spasms
    7. https://mayfieldclinic.com/pe-mri.htm
    8. https://hpi.georgetown.edu/backpain/
    9. https://www.theregenerativeclinic.co.uk/news/80-uk-adults-experience-back-pain/
    10. https://www.healthline.com/health/lumbar-mri-scan#procedure
    11. https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Lumbar-Spinal-Stenosis
    12. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1148690-overview
    13. https://healthcareextreme.com/how-to-read-mri-lumbar-spine-in-8-easy-steps/

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