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Cervical (Spine) MRI Scan: Purpose, Preparation And Procedure

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is a non-invasive and painless test that produces detailed images of the body. Specifically, the Cervical MRI scans focus on the soft tissues in the neck and cervical spine. The cervical spine is the part of the spine located along the neck.

The process is completely painless, non-toxic and non-invasive. Unlike other forms of body scanning, MRI uses radio waves rather than radiation, and it is therefore perfectly safe for use on humans.

Even so, some patients may find the experience discomforting due to the small space and the loud noises. This is especially true for people with a fear of enclosed spaces. There is also a rare possibility of being allergic to the contrast dye used for a specialised MRI scan.

How Do Cervical MRI Scans Work?

The human body consists of 80% water, containing millions of hydrogen atoms. When the atoms come into contact with the powerful magnetic field created by the MRI machine, they align in the same direction. Then, radio waves are activated to disrupt this alignment when added to the magnetic field.

In other words, the radio waves provide energy to the atoms to move back to their normal position. This process helps to produce detailed, three-dimensional images of the soft tissues in the cervical spine.

A single MRI image is called a ‘slice’ and when combined, hundreds of slices together provide a complete cross-section picture of tissue. Cervical MRI scanning is the most accurate method to check for any injuries or structural abnormalities in the neck or spinal cord area as the machine takes clear pictures of internal organs and tissue.

Occasionally, MRI technicians may use contrast dye injections before the scan if required. This helps capture the blood vessels and any abnormalities in more detail. This process is called Magnetic Resonance Angiogram (MRA). The contrast agents are non-toxic, and allergic reactions to them are rare.

A cervical MRI scan is different from an X-ray scan or a Computed Tomography (CT) scan as both of these use radiation to create the images, whereas MRI does not.

Why You Might Need A Cervical MRI Scan

The most prominent indication that you need a cervical MRI scan is consistent neck pain. If you have tried a basic treatment for your neck without success, then the MRI images will help determine what is causing your neck pain. And if the pain is associated with numbness or weakness then the test is highly recommended because it may signal a serious cervical condition.

A spinal injury is another reason to have your neck checked in this way. Doctors will usually order an MRI after a trauma or injury to make sure there is no damage to the neck tissue or bones. MRI scans are also used to plan a spinal surgery; your doctor may order a cervical spine MRI scan both before and after the surgery.

The cervical scan also assists in diagnosing injury to the brain, as it identifies specific locations of a functional part of the brain. These are parts of our brain that control different functions, such as speech, movement, or memory.

How Do You Prepare For A Cervical MRI?

Each hospital or medical institution has different MRI protocols. As a general rule though, you may eat and drink or take your medication as usual for most MRI tests. However, there are certain restrictions for specific types of MRI scanning, so always consult your doctor about the specific requirements before the test takes place.

You must also inform your doctor about any medical conditions you have. Important information to share with your doctor includes:

  • Kidney problems or diabetes.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Claustrophobia or fear of being in small, enclosed spaces.
  • Metal implants (e.g. pacemaker, insulin pump, or metal plates).
  • Body piercings.
  • Aneurysm clips.
  • Allergies (especially shellfish).
  • Permanent makeup and tattoos.

Diabetes and kidney problems are relevant when you need a contrast dye injection. In such cases, you will undergo a kidney function test before the scan to make sure your kidneys can process the contrast dye safely. The test will also ensure that you will have no allergic reaction to the contrast agents if you have an injection.

MRI scans are not recommended during the first trimester of pregnancy. Studies indicate that the magnetic energy and radiofrequency could harm the embryo in the first three months of pregnancy.

It is also unsafe for people with implanted metal devices or any external metal because of the powerful magnetic field. Due to that, you must remove any clothing with metal and jewellery you have on you before you enter the MRI machine. The same goes for hearing aids and removable dental work. You will most likely enter the machine with a hospital gown too.

If you have severe claustrophobia, the doctor may prescribe you antianxiety pills, and may even give an anaesthetic in extreme cases to make the process more bearable. In case you are given anti-anxiety medication for the MRI scan, you will need to find someone else to take you home afterwards, as it won’t be safe for you to drive.

On the day of your appointment, you should bring with you any previous MRI scans, X-rays, or CT scans.

What Should You Expect From A Cervical MRI Scan?

During the scan

During an MRI scan, you must lie on a narrow table that is attached to the tube-shaped MRI scanner. The MRI technician, after instructing you to remove all jewellery and metal, may provide you with earplugs for the loud noises, or may instead play some music for distraction and relaxation.

Patients commonly wear a hospital gown during the scan for safety.

Firstly, a coiled frame will come over your head. This frame contains an antenna that helps focus the machine’s energy and produce the most accurate images. The technician will also place a device in your hand to signal for help in case you need it.

Once you are settled in the right position, the table slides into the tube and the scanning begins. The MRI technician oversees the process from a window in an adjoining room.

The MRI scan usually lasts between thirty to forty-five minutes, but it can take as long as two hours. During that time, you must remain as still as possible to have clear results. If you move too much, the pictures will, unfortunately, be blurry – you may have to go through the procedure again.

In some cases, doctors may recommend using an open MRI machine that is more spacious than the common model. This can happen if the patient is claustrophobic or overweight. However, open MRI machines are not available at all institutions, so consult with your doctor to make the necessary arrangements.

After the scan

When the procedure is over, the results are sent to a radiologist who specialises in reading MRI images. Your doctor is the person responsible to share and explain to you the results of your MRI exam.

Depending on the given results, they may recommend further tests or discuss possible next steps if there is a diagnosis.

A Cervical MRI scan helps to diagnose a number of conditions accurately. Some common findings include:

  • Bulging or herniated discs (cervical radiculopathy).
  • Aneurysm.
  • Narrow cervical spine (spinal stenosis).
  • Bone abnormalities and cartilage (cervical spondylosis).
  • Scoliosis.

Some less common conditions identified by a Cervical MRI scan include:

  • Cancer or tumours in the bones or soft tissues.
  • Infection in the bones (osteomyelitis) and the spine.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
  • Disc inflammation (diskitis).
  • Compressed spinal cords or nerves.
  • Spinal cord injury or trauma.
  • Other soft tissue disorders or bone abnormalities.


How long does a cervical MRI take?

Typically the MRI procedure can last from thirty minutes up to two hours, depending on the individual case.

When the radiofrequency is turned off, the hydrogen atoms return to their normal state. The duration of this movement is based on the type of tissue and varies among individuals. The MRI machine’s sensor calculates the time the atoms need to return to their position.

Does your whole body go in for a neck MRI?

During every MRI scan, you must lie down on a table that will then slide into the MRI machine whilst the scan is being performed. The whole body goes in the tube even if you only need to scan a specific body part like the neck area.

What does an abnormal cervical MRI mean?

An abnormal cervical MRI means that the results of the MRI scan detected an injury or abnormality. The phrase is not used for a specific diagnosis or condition, but it refers to a general state.

Put simply, abnormal MRI results show that there is a condition in the neck or spinal cord; it is an indication that the cervix is not healthy, and that further investigation and treatment is possibly necessary.