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Thoracic Spine MRI: Why Is It So Important?

Back pain is a fact of ageing. As we get older our spine compresses and this can cause pain. This pain will come and go but generally is not overly serious or debilitating. However, it is hard to differentiate between pain associated with damage and pain caused by the natural ageing process.

If pain is occurring in your thoracic spine–which is sandwiched between the cervical and lumbar portions of your spine–it can be a sign of a serious problem. Physical examination plays an important role in determining the cause of the pain. But an MRI scan is the only way to get an accurate glimpse at the spine. The images generated by a back MRI scan allows diagnosis of the root cause of your back pain.

If you are experiencing thoracic back pain and are wondering if you require an MRI, this article is for you. Continue reading as we discuss the facts about a thoracic MRI scan and how they can help get your back on track.

What is the Thoracic Spine?

The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae stacked on top of each other and numbered T1 - T12. This portion of the spine has several important responsibilities including:

While the cervical and lumbar spine provide more mobility, the role of the thoracic spine is to provide stability. The thoracic vertebrae increase in size as they move away from the neck and towards the lumbar spine. This is to support the weight of the torso.

This part of the spine anchors the ribs, and sternum, effectively protecting the inner organs. This limits the thoracic spine’s range of motion. Therefore it’s not prone to injury. If you are experiencing thoracic spine pain there is an increased chance the symptoms are signs of a serious problem.

What Does a Thoracic MRI Look For?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive diagnostic procedure. A thoracic spine MRI scan will produce images of the structures that make up the spine–as well as the soft tissues and organs surrounding the thoracic spine.

These images are called slices. The machine will move across three planes:

The MRI machine will capture a series of images as it moves across each plane. These slices will be able to show a three-dimensional representation of your thoracic spine.

A radiologist will then be able to examine the images and identify potential causes of your pain. Including:

A spine MRI increases the chances of quickly finding the cause of your back pain. An accurate diagnosis is crucial to begin the treatment and rehabilitation process.

What Organs Does a Thoracic MRI Show?

The sternum, rib cage, and thoracic spine form a protective space called the thoracic cavity. This area is home to several important structures, such as:

Therefore when a thoracic MRI is completed it will show these structures along with several other soft tissues. This provides the opportunity for the radiologist to identify if a problem with any other structures is manifesting itself into back pain.

Why is a Thoracic Spine Pain a Red Flag?

The thoracic spine is the most rigid portion of the spine. A limited range of motion reduces the ability to injure the area from everyday activities. Therefore if you are experiencing thoracic spine pain, it can be an indication of a more serious problem.

With so many important organs and structures inside the thoracic cavity, there are many nerves and blood vessels needed to feed them. These travel through small holes in the vertebrae–called foramina–to feed into the spinal cord.

Pain in the thoracic area could indicate a potential nerve problem or damage to soft tissue structures around the spine.

What Are The Symptoms of Thoracic Spine Nerve Damage?

The symptoms of nerve damage depend on the type, severity and location of the damage. However, common signs of nerve damage can include:

The thoracic spine can be further broken down into 4 nerve sections. Experiencing symptoms in one of these specific regions of the body can further help narrow down the source of the anomaly or injury.

  1. T1

    This area affects the hand, arms and fingers. Some individuals with nerve damage to this area can also experience breathing challenges.

  2. T2 to T5

    This nerve section corresponds to the chest muscles and mid-back.

  3. T6 to T8

    This area can affect the lower chest muscles and the abdominal muscles.

  4. T9 to T12

    This section can affect the lower abdominal muscles, sexual organs and bladder function.

How Long is a Thoracic MRI?

A thoracic MRI is not far off from other MRI procedures. It does not typically require any prior preparation or fasting–unless otherwise specified by your doctor.

The entire procedure will take approximately 10–30 minutes. If the use of contrast material is needed, the scan may take a bit more time while you wait for the contrast agent to work its way through your bloodstream.

The Bottom Line

Thoracic spine pain can not only be uncomfortable but potentially life-threatening. In addition to a thorough physical examination, your doctor may schedule an MRI to find the source of your discomfort.

Having an accurate diagnosis is the first step in your rehabilitation process. If you want to avoid the wait times at the NHS and find the cause of your thoracic pain make an appointment at one of our centres. Or if you would like more information about MRI procedures, contact us and we will be happy to answer any additional questions you may have.


References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4175778/
  2. https://www.shepherd.org/patient-programs/spinal-cord-injury/levels-and-types/thoracic-spinal-cord-injury
  3. https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/spine-anatomy/thoracic-spine-anatomy-and-upper-back-pain
  4. https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/back-pain-spinal-mri#1
  5. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/magnetic-resonance-imaging-mri-of-the-spine-and-brain
  6. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/programs/imaging-center/exams/mri/spine.html
  7. https://www.coloradospineinstitute.com/education/tests/mri/
  8. https://www.nof.org/patients/what-is-osteoporosis/

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