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MRI and low back pain

Backache - MRI; Low back pain - MRI; Lumbar pain - MRI; Back strain - MRI; Lumbar radiculopathy - MRI; Herniated intervertebral disk - MRI; Prolapsed intervertebral disk - MRI; Slipped disk - MRI; Ruptured disk - MRI; Herniated nucleus pulposus - MRI; Spinal stenosis - MRI; Degenerative spine disease - MRI

Back pain and sciatica are common health complaints. Almost everyone has back pain at some time in their life. Most of the time, the exact cause of the pain can't be found.

An MRI scan is an imaging test that creates detailed pictures of the soft tissue around the spine.

Information

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:

  • Cannot pass urine or stools
  • Cannot control your urine or stools
  • Difficulty with walking and balance
  • Back pain that is severe in children
  • Fever
  • History of cancer
  • Other signs or symptoms of cancer
  • Recent serious fall or injury
  • Back pain that is very severe, and not even pain pills from your doctor help
  • One leg feels numb or weak and it is getting worse

If you have low back pain but none of the warning signs just mentioned, having an MRI won't 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:

  • Most of the time, back and neck pain are not caused by a serious medical problem or injury.
  • Low back or neck pain often gets better on its own.

An MRI scan creates 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:

  • Your doctor ordering more tests that you may not really need
  • Your worrying about your health and your back even more. If these worries cause you not to exercise, this may can cause your back to take longer to heal
  • Treatment that you don't need, especially for changes that occur naturally as you age

MRI SCAN RISKS

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. Newer pacemakers can be MRI compatible. Check with your cardiologist, and tell the MRI technologist that your pacemaker is MRI compatible.

An MRI scan can also cause a piece of metal inside your body to move. Before having an MRI, tell the technologist about any metal objects that you have in your body.

Pregnant women should not have MRI scans.

References

Brooks MK, Mazzie JP, Ortiz AO. Degenerative disease. In: Haaga JR, Boll DT, eds. CT and MRI of the Whole Body. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 29.

Mazur MD, Shah LM, Schmidt MH. Assessment of spinal imaging. In: Winn HR, ed. Youmans and Winn Neurological Surgery. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 274.

  • Sciatica

    Animation

  •  

    Sciatica - Animation

    Sciatica. It's not a new trendy restaurant in New York or LA, or a new SciFi program on your favorite cable channel. Sciatica is something much less sexy. Sciatica might actually be the cause of that the sharp pain you occasionally feel in your backside, or traveling down your hip or leg. What is sciatica? What does this pain mean? Sciatica occurs when there is pressure or damage to the Sciatic nerve. This large nerve starts in your lower spine and runs down the back of each leg. It controls the muscles of the back of your knee and lower leg. It also provides sensation to the back of your thigh, part of your lower leg, and the sole of your foot. Sciatica is usually caused by another problem, such as a slipped disk, spinal stenosis or narrowing of the spinal column, piriformis syndrome, the narrowing of muscle in your buttocks, a pelvic injury or fracture, and perhaps even tumors. Your pain may feel like a mild tingling, a dull ache, or a burning sensation. Sometimes the pain can be so bad you might not be able to move. The pain will usually occur on one side, perhaps as a sharp pain in one part of your hip or leg, or maybe you will notice the numbness. The pain may get worse after you stand or sit, at night, when you sneeze, cough, or laugh, or when you bend backwards or walk forward. For treatment, your doctor will perform a careful physical exam. Your doctor might find you have weakness when you bend your knee or move your foot, trouble bending your foot inward or downward, weak reflexes, or pain when you lift your leg straight up off the examination table while lying down. Your doctor may also do other tests to find what's causing your sciatica, including blood tests, x-rays, and other imaging tests. Treatment will focus on what causes your sciatica. Sometimes you may not need treatment because your pain will go away on its own. Your doctor will likely first recommend that you take steps to calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation, such as applying heat or ice to the painful area. You might try ice for the first 48 to 72 hours after you feel pain, then use heat afterwards. Your doctor might also tell you to take over-the-counter pain relievers. If conservative measures don't help your problem, your doctor may recommend you have injections to reduce inflammation around your sciatic nerve and other medicines to reduce the stabbing pain. Physical therapy may be a viable option, so talk to your healthcare provider about this option. Whatever you do, don't stay in bed all day. You need to reduce your normal activity for the first few days after you start having pain, but getting no activity will only make your pain worse. After a few days, try gradually returning to your normal routine. But, avoid heavy lifting or twisting your back for at least 6 weeks. Make sure you start exercising again though after 2 to 3 weeks. Remember, include exercises to strengthen your abdomen or belly and improve the flexibility of your spine.

  • Sciatica

    Animation

  •  

    Sciatica - Animation

    Sciatica. It's not a new trendy restaurant in New York or LA, or a new SciFi program on your favorite cable channel. Sciatica is something much less sexy. Sciatica might actually be the cause of that the sharp pain you occasionally feel in your backside, or traveling down your hip or leg. What is sciatica? What does this pain mean? Sciatica occurs when there is pressure or damage to the Sciatic nerve. This large nerve starts in your lower spine and runs down the back of each leg. It controls the muscles of the back of your knee and lower leg. It also provides sensation to the back of your thigh, part of your lower leg, and the sole of your foot. Sciatica is usually caused by another problem, such as a slipped disk, spinal stenosis or narrowing of the spinal column, piriformis syndrome, the narrowing of muscle in your buttocks, a pelvic injury or fracture, and perhaps even tumors. Your pain may feel like a mild tingling, a dull ache, or a burning sensation. Sometimes the pain can be so bad you might not be able to move. The pain will usually occur on one side, perhaps as a sharp pain in one part of your hip or leg, or maybe you will notice the numbness. The pain may get worse after you stand or sit, at night, when you sneeze, cough, or laugh, or when you bend backwards or walk forward. For treatment, your doctor will perform a careful physical exam. Your doctor might find you have weakness when you bend your knee or move your foot, trouble bending your foot inward or downward, weak reflexes, or pain when you lift your leg straight up off the examination table while lying down. Your doctor may also do other tests to find what's causing your sciatica, including blood tests, x-rays, and other imaging tests. Treatment will focus on what causes your sciatica. Sometimes you may not need treatment because your pain will go away on its own. Your doctor will likely first recommend that you take steps to calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation, such as applying heat or ice to the painful area. You might try ice for the first 48 to 72 hours after you feel pain, then use heat afterwards. Your doctor might also tell you to take over-the-counter pain relievers. If conservative measures don't help your problem, your doctor may recommend you have injections to reduce inflammation around your sciatic nerve and other medicines to reduce the stabbing pain. Physical therapy may be a viable option, so talk to your healthcare provider about this option. Whatever you do, don't stay in bed all day. You need to reduce your normal activity for the first few days after you start having pain, but getting no activity will only make your pain worse. After a few days, try gradually returning to your normal routine. But, avoid heavy lifting or twisting your back for at least 6 weeks. Make sure you start exercising again though after 2 to 3 weeks. Remember, include exercises to strengthen your abdomen or belly and improve the flexibility of your spine.

    A Closer Look

     

    Self Care

     

    Tests for MRI and low back pain

     
     

    Review Date: 7/7/2019

    Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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