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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the Spine and BrainResonancia Magnética Nuclear (RMN) del Encéfalo y la Médula Espinal

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the Spine and Brain

(MRI Scan of the Spine, MRI Scan of the Brain)

Procedure overview

What is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of a large magnet, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body. Unlike X-rays or computed tomography (CT scans), MRI does not use ionizing radiation. 

How does an MRI scan work?

The MRI machine is a large, cylindrical (tube-shaped) machine that creates a strong magnetic field around the patient and sends pulses of radio waves from a scanner. The magnetic field aligns the hydrogen protons in your body along the same vector. The radio waves then knock the particles out of this aligned position. As the nuclei realign back into proper position, the nuclei send out radio signals. These signals are received by a computer that analyzes and converts them into an image of the part of the body being examined. This image appears on a viewing monitor. Cross-sectional views can be obtained to reveal further details. Some MRI machines look like narrow tunnels, while others are more open.

Magnetic resonance (MRI) may be used instead of computed tomography (CT) in situations where organs or soft tissue are being studied, because MRI is better at telling the difference between different soft tissues and between normal and abnormal soft tissue.

New uses and indications for MRI have contributed to the development of additional magnetic resonance technology. Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) is a new procedure used to evaluate blood flow through arteries in a noninvasive (the skin is not pierced) manner. MRA can also be used to detect intracranial (within the brain) aneurysms and vascular malformations (abnormalities of blood vessels within the brain, spinal cord, or other parts of the body).

Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) is another noninvasive procedure used to assess chemical abnormalities in body tissues, such as the brain. MRS may be used to assess disorders such as HIV infection of the brain, stroke, head injury, coma, Alzheimer disease, tumors, and multiple sclerosis.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain (fMRI) is used to determine the specific location of the brain where a certain function, such as speech or memory, occurs. The general areas of the brain in which such functions occur are known, but the exact location may vary from person to person. During functional resonance imaging of the brain, you will be asked to perform a specific task, such as recite the Pledge of Allegiance, while the scan is being done. By pinpointing the exact location of the functional center in the brain, doctors can plan surgery or other treatments for a particular disorder of the brain.

Anatomy of the spine

An illustration of the anatomy of the spine
Click Image to Enlarge

The spinal column, also called the vertebral or spinal canal, is made up of 33 vertebrae that are separated by spongy disks and classified into distinct areas.

  • The cervical area consists of 7 vertebrae in the neck.

  • The thoracic area consists of 12 vertebrae in the chest area.

  • The lumbar area consists of 5 vertebrae in the lower back area.

  • The sacrum has 5 small, fused vertebrae.

  • The 4 coccygeal vertebrae fuse to form 1 bone, called the coccyx or tailbone.

The spinal cord, a major part of the central nervous system, is located in the vertebral canal and reaches from the base of the skull to the upper part of the lower back. The spinal cord is surrounded by the bones of the spine and a sac containing cerebrospinal fluid. The spinal cord carries sensory and movement signals to and from the brain, and controls many reflexes.

Anatomy of the brain

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. The brain is an important organ that controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, respirations, temperature, hunger, and every other process that regulates our body.

Illustration of parts of the brain
Click to Enlarge

What are the different parts of the brain?

The brain can be divided into the cerebrum, brainstem, and cerebellum:

  • Cerebrum. The cerebrum (supratentorial or front of brain) is composed of the right and left hemispheres. Functions of the cerebrum include: initiation of movement, coordination of movement, body temperature, touch, vision, hearing, judgment, reasoning, problem solving, emotions, and learning.

  • Brainstem. The brainstem (midline or middle of brain) includes the midbrain, the pons, and the medulla. Functions of this area include: movement of the eyes and mouth, relaying sensory messages (such as hot, pain, and loud), hunger, respirations, consciousness, cardiac function, body temperature, involuntary muscle movements, sneezing, coughing, vomiting, and swallowing.

  • Cerebellum. The cerebellum (infratentorial or back of brain) is located at the back of the head. Its function is to coordinate voluntary muscle movements and to maintain posture, balance, and equilibrium.

More specifically, other parts of the brain include the following:

  • Pons. A deep part of the brain, located in the brainstem, the pons contains many of the control areas for eye and face movements.

  • Medulla. The lowest part of the brainstem, the medulla is the most vital part of the entire brain and contains important control centers for the heart and lungs.

  • Spinal cord. A large bundle of nerve fibers located in the back that extends from the base of the brain to the lower back, the spinal cord carries messages to and from the brain and controls many reflexes.

  • Frontal lobe. The largest section of the brain located in the front of the head, the frontal lobe is involved in personality characteristics and movement.

  • Parietal lobe. The middle part of the brain, the parietal lobe helps a person to identify objects and understand spatial relationships (where one's body is compared to objects around the person). The parietal lobe is also involved in interpreting pain and touch in the body.

  • Occipital lobe. The occipital lobe is the back part of the brain that is involved with vision.

  • Temporal lobe. The sides of the brain, these temporal lobes are involved in memory, speech, and sense of smell.

Reasons for the procedure

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

  • Tumors

  • Abscesses

  • Congenital abnormalities

  • Aneurysms

  • Venous malformations

  • Hemorrhage, or bleeding into the brain or spinal cord

  • Subdural hematoma (an area of bleeding just under the dura mater, or covering of the brain)

  • Degenerative diseases, multiple sclerosis, hypoxic encephalopathy (dysfunction of the brain due to a lack of oxygen), or encephalomyelitis (inflammation or infection of the brain and/or spinal cord)

  • Hydrocephalus, or fluid in the brain

  • Herniation or degeneration of discs of the spinal cord

  • Help plan surgeries on the spine, such as decompression of a pinched nerve or spinal fusion

MRI can also help to identify the specific location of a functional center of the brain (the specific part of the brain controlling a function, such as speech or memory) to assist in treatment of a condition of the brain.

There may be other reasons for your doctor to recommend MRI of the spine or brain.

Risks of the procedure

Because radiation is not used, there is no risk of exposure to ionizing radiation during an MRI procedure.

Due to the use of the strong magnet, MRI may not be able to be performed on patients with implanted pacemakers, some older intracranial aneurysm clips, cochlear implants, certain prosthetic devices, implanted drug infusion pumps, neurostimulators, bone-growth stimulators, certain intrauterine contraceptive devices, or any other type of iron-based metal implants. MRI is also contraindicated in the presence of some internal metallic objects, such as bullets or shrapnel, as well as some surgical clips, pins, plates, screws, metal sutures, or wire mesh. Talk to your doctor if you have any implanted device or metal object in your body.  

If you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, you should notify your doctor. In general, there is no known risk of MRI in pregnancy.  However, particularly in the first trimester, MRI should be reserved for use only to address very important problems or suspected abnormalities.

If contrast dye is used, there is a risk for allergic reaction to the dye. Patients who are allergic to or sensitive to medications, contrast dye, or iodine should notify their doctor.

MRI contrast may have an effect on other conditions such as allergies, asthma, anemia, hypotension (low blood pressure), kidney disease, and sickle cell disease.

Nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF) is a very rare but serious complication of MRI contrast use in patients with kidney disease or kidney failure.  If you have a history of kidney disease, kidney failure, kidney transplant, liver disease or are on dialysis, you must inform the MRI technologist or radiologist prior to receiving contrast.

There may be other risks depending on your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your doctor prior to the procedure.

Before the procedure

Your doctor will explain the procedure to you and offer you the opportunity to ask any questions that you might have about the procedure.

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 something is not clear.

Generally, there is no special restriction on diet or activity prior to an MRI procedure.

Before the examination, it is extremely important that you inform the technologist if any of the following apply to you:

  • You are claustrophobic and think that you will be unable to lie still while inside the scanning machine, in which case you may be given a sedative

  • You have a pacemaker inserted, 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 metallic fragments anywhere in the body

  • You have permanent eyeliner or tattoos

  • You are pregnant or suspect 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 piercing

  • You have an intrauterine device (IUD)

  • You are wearing a medication patch

As there is a possibility that you may receive a sedative before the procedure, you should plan to have someone drive you home afterward.

Based on your medical condition, your doctor may request other specific preparation.

During the procedure

A  picture of a MRI brain scan film
MRI of the Brain

MRI may be performed on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital. Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your doctor's practices.

Generally, MRI of the spine and brain follows this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewelry, eyeglasses, hearing aids, hairpins, removable dental work, or other objects that may interfere with the procedure.

  2. If you are asked to remove clothing, you will be given a gown to wear.

  3. If you are to have a procedure done with contrast, an intravenous (IV) line will be started in the hand or arm for injection of the contrast dye.

  4. You will lie on a scan table that slides into a large circular opening of the scanning machine. Pillows and straps may be used to prevent movement during the procedure.

  5. The technologist will be in another room where the scanner controls are located. However, you will be in constant sight of the technologist through a window. Speakers inside the scanner will enable the technologist to communicate with and hear you. You will have a call button so that you can let the technologist know if you have any problems during the procedure. The technologist 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.

  7. During the scanning process, a clicking noise will sound as the magnetic field is created and pulses of radio waves are sent from the scanner.

  8. It will be important for you to remain very still during the examination, as any movement could cause distortion and affect the quality of the scan.

  9. At intervals, you may be instructed to hold your breath, or to not breathe, for a few seconds, depending on the body part being examined. You will then be told when you can breathe. You should not have to hold your breath for longer than a few seconds.

  10. If contrast dye is used for your procedure, you may feel some effects when the dye is injected into the IV line. These effects include a flushing sensation or a feeling of coldness, a salty or metallic taste in the mouth, a brief headache, itching, or nausea and/or vomiting. These effects usually last for a few moments.

  11. You should notify the technologist if you feel any breathing difficulties, sweating, numbness, or heart palpitations.

  12. Once the scan has been completed, the table will slide out of the scanner and you will be assisted off the table.

  13. If an IV line was inserted for contrast administration, the line will be removed.

While the MRI procedure itself causes no pain, having to lie still for the length of the procedure might cause some discomfort or pain, particularly in the case of a recent injury or invasive procedure such as surgery. The technologist will use all possible comfort measures and complete the procedure as quickly as possible to minimize any discomfort or pain.

After the procedure

You should move slowly when getting up from the scanner table to avoid any dizziness or lightheadedness from lying flat for the length of the procedure.

If any sedatives were taken for the procedure, you may be required to rest until the sedatives have worn off. You will also need to avoid driving.

If contrast dye is used during your procedure, you may be monitored for a period of time 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 return home following your procedure, you should notify your doctor as this could indicate an infection or other type of reaction.

Otherwise, there is no special type of care required after a MRI scan of the spine and brain. You may resume your usual diet and activities, unless your doctor advises you differently.

Your doctor may give you additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.

Online resources

The content provided here is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your health care professional. Please consult your doctor with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

This page contains links to other websites with information about this procedure and related health conditions. We hope you find these sites helpful, but please remember we do not control or endorse the information presented on these websites, nor do these sites endorse the information contained here.

American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

American Cancer Society

Brain Injury Association of America

National Cancer Institute (NCI)

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

National Library of Medicine

National Osteoporosis Foundation

National Stroke Association

American Association of Neurological Surgeons

Radiological Society of North America

 
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  Apathy Might Signal Brain Shrinkage in Old Age: Study
  Adjusting Your Thermostat Might Improve Your Thinking
  Off Season May Not Be Long Enough to Recover From Football 'Hits'
  Certain Type of Brain Malformation May Be Best Left Alone
  Laughter May Work Like Meditation in the Brain
  Brain Scans Spot Possible Clues to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  People With More Education May Recover Better From Brain Injury
  Like Humans, Ravens Understand There's a Pecking Order
  Altruism May Help Shield Teens From Depression: Study
  Traumatic Brain Injury Common Among Homeless Men
  Medical Marijuana May Ease Some MS Symptoms, Study Concludes
  Japan Quake Shows How Stress Alters the Brain
  Type 2 Diabetes May Shrink the Brain, Study Suggests
  Too Much or Too Little Sleep Tied to Memory Problems in Older Women
  Alzheimer's Variation May Often Go Unrecognized: Study
  Prenatal Fish Oil Supplements May Not Boost Child's Brain Health, Study Finds
  Young Blood Boosts Brains of Old Mice
  Researchers Shed Light on Link Between Stress, Heart Trouble
  Brain Activity Changes in Pregnant Women, Study Finds
  Implanted Device Lowers Blood Pressure in Rat Study
  Is Your Brain Overheating? Try Yawning
  Music May Benefit Your Brain
  Mild Electrical Zaps to Brain Induce 'Lucid Dreaming' in Study
  Antipsychotics Help Cut Crime Rate: Study
  Workplace Solvents Linked to Long-Term Memory, Thinking Problems
  Stem Cells Reverse MS-Like Illness in Mice
  Migraines Linked to Increased Risk of 'Silent Strokes'
  Smaller Brain Volume Seen in College Football Players in Study
  Size of Brain Aneurysm Doesn't Predict Chances of Rupture: Study
  Iodine Deficiency Common in Pregnancy, Pediatricians Warn
  Memory Problems After Chemo Linked to Brain Changes
  Steroids May Not Be Wise Choice for Intensive-Care Patients
  Study Supports Durability of Parkinson's Treatment
  Learning Another Language May Help the Aging Brain
  Scientists Erase, Then Restore Memories in Rats
  Scents May Sway Your Sense of Beauty
  Anti-Alzheimer's Drug Shows Promise in Mice Study
  Pot Isn't Harmless, Top U.S. Health Official Says
  Blood Pressure History May Affect Brain Function in Old Age
  Could Fitter Kids Be Smarter Kids, Too?
  Good Heart Health May Keep Your Mind Sharp, Too
  Scans Show Even 'Late' Preemies Have Brain Differences
  Levodopa May Beat Newer Meds for Long-Term Parkinson's Care: Study
  Hypnosis May Help Improve Deep Sleep
  MRI Technique May Help Detect Parkinson's Earlier
  Mom's Epilepsy Drugs Appear Safe in Breast Milk
  Anxiety May Affect Kids' Brains
  Study: Similar Outcomes From Combat Head Injuries, Regardless of Cause
  Head Injuries Tied to Higher Migraine Risk for Veterans
  Mouse Study Supports Notion of 'Tanning Addiction'
  Lifetime of Learning Might Thwart Dementia, Study Suggests
  Veterans With Brain Injury May Be at Risk for Dementia: Study
  Gluten-Free Diet May Lift the 'Fog' of Celiac Patients, Study Says
  Researchers Discover How 'Magic Mushrooms' Affect the Brain
  Headbanging to Heavy Metal Music Linked To Man's Brain Bleed
  Like Humans, Chimps' Smarts May Rely on Genes
Adult Diseases and Conditions
  Anatomy of the Brain
Pediatric Diseases and Conditions
  Anatomy of a Child's Brain
Test and Procedures
  Computed Tomography (CT or CAT) Scan of the Brain
  Positron Emission Tomography (PET Scan)