Get an MRI to Understand Your Back Pain

concerned older couple Heilman

When back pain lasts more than a month, it’s important to find the cause.

If you’re suffering from neck or back pain, an MRI could be the best tool to diagnose the root cause of your pain so your treatment team can generate a strong plan for your pain relief.

But what is an MRI and what are the risks? What happens when an MRI test is performed? How does an MRI compare to other imaging tools, such as X-rays? Is an MRI necessary for every patient suffering from back pain?

How MRIs Work

Magnetic resonance imaging scans, or MRIs, use radio waves and magnetic fields to generate high-resolution images of the structures within the body. MRIs produce more detailed, complete pictures than X-rays because X-rays are incapable of creating images of the body’s soft tissue structures. Where X-rays can only produce images of bones and dense structures such as tumors, MRIs produce detailed images of muscles, cartilage, and connective tissues.


If you are ready to break free from your pain and start enjoying life again, contact the Heilman Center for an appointment with a Pain Specialist at (734) 796-7555. In most cases, we can fit you into the schedule within a week.


Who Needs an MRI Scan for Back Pain?

Not everyone who suffers from back pain needs an MRI scan. Unless your back pain is chronic, or doctors suspect an underlying condition, you may not need an MRI. Often doctors recommend treating acute back pain with exercise, physical therapy, anti-inflammatories, and time.

If back pain doesn’t resolve under this conservative treatment approach within a month, an MRI might be warranted. About one-third of middle-aged patients who have an MRI for back pain will display what doctors call “normal abnormalities.” These normal abnormalities often aren’t the cause of the patient’s back pain, and don’t require treatment.

So, when should you have an MRI for back pain? If pain continues or gets worse in spite of conservative treatment, an MRI may be necessary to determine the root cause of the pain. An MRI may also be a good idea for patients with a history of cancer, or those experiencing nerve pain or damage, including sciatica. Doctors may also order an MRI if they suspect an underlying infection.

MRI radiologic technician smiling mature female patient

An MRI is a painless diagnostic procedure

What to Expect from Your MRI

If your doctor recommends an MRI, he or she may request that you not eat or drink anything for four to six hours prior to undergoing the scan. Because MRI machines use powerful magnetic fields, you will need to remove jewelry, watches, or other metal objects before your MRI.

Wear clothes made without metal zippers, snaps, or buttons. You may be given a hospital gown to wear for the exam. Or if your clothes are metal-free you can wear your own clothing. Sometimes the radiologist may administer a special dye via IV or injection before the exam to make your results easier to read.

Most MRI machines require the patient to lie down on a table that will slide into a large tube. If you suffer from claustrophobia, ask your doctor to give you something to help you stay calm. If you are large or tall, discuss the option of having an open MRI with your doctor.

MRI scans typically take half an hour to an hour to complete. There will be an intercom inside the machine that allows you to communicate with the radiologist. Some MRI machines have a TV, special headphones, or other equipment to keep you entertained and distracted while you are inside the machine.

MRI scans are painless, although you will need to lie as still as you can so the final images are clear. You will hear loud humming or thumping sounds during the scan. You should be able to go back to your normal activities and routine immediately after the exam, unless your doctor has given you medication to help you relax. If that is the case, be sure someone comes with you to drive you home, and plan to wait a few hours for the effects of the medication to wear off before driving.

Are there Risks with an MRI?

If you’ve been experiencing consistent, chronic neck or back pain that won’t go away even with treatment, having an MRI to understand what’s really causing the pain may be the best next step.  Doctors can more accurately diagnose the cause of your pain so they can treat it with the detailed images produced by an MRI. MRIs are safer than X-rays or CT scans because they doesn’t use radiation. For many neck and back pain patients, an MRI is an essential step on the road to relief.

If you’ve been experiencing chronic back pain for more than a month, contact the Pain Specialists at Heilman Center to schedule an appointment to find out if an MRI might help diagnose your problem so doctors can get you back on track to living a pain-free life.