An MRI scan is an imaging test that creates detailed pictures of the spine.
DANGER SIGNS AND BACK PAIN
Both you and your doctor may be worried that something serious is causing your low back pain. Could your pain be caused by cancer or infection in your spine? How does your doctor know for sure?
You will likely need an MRI right away if you have warning signs of a more serious cause of back pain:
If you have low back pain but none of the warning signs just mentioned having an MRI does not lead to better treatment, better pain relief, or a quicker return to activities.
You and your doctor may want to wait before having an MRI. If the pain does not get better or becomes worse, your doctor will likely order one.
Keep in mind that:
MRI scans create detailed pictures of your spine. It can pick up most injuries that you have had in your spine or changes that happen with aging. Even small problems or changes that are not the cause of your current back pain are picked up. These findings rarely change how your doctor first treats you. But they can lead to:
RISKS OF MRI SCAN
In rare cases, the contrast (dye) used with MRI scans can cause severe allergic reactions or damage to your kidneys.
The strong magnetic fields created during an MRI can cause heart pacemakers and other implants not to work as well. It can also cause a piece of metal inside your body to move or shift. Before having an MRI, tell the technologist about any metal objects that you have on your body.
Chou R, Qaseem A, Owens DK, Shekelle P; for the Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of Physicians. Diagnostic Imaging for Low Back Pain: Advice for High-Value Health Care From the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2011;154:181-189.
Updated by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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