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Lower back (Lumbar spine)

Lower back (Lumbar spine)

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Lumbar Spine

A lumbar spine MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is a non-invasive diagnostic tool that provides detailed images of the lower back's bones, discs, nerves, and surrounding tissues, aiding in the assessment of various conditions. 

Understanding Your Lumbar Spine MRI

A lumbar spine MRI is a detailed imaging test that allows doctors to assess the bones, discs, spinal cord, and nerves in the lower back. It can help diagnose conditions like disc herniation, spinal stenosis, and tumors that may be causing lower back pain, leg pain, numbness, or weakness.

How a Lumbar Spine MRI Can Help?

As we age, lower back pain becomes increasingly common, with an estimated 80% of adults in the UK experiencing it at some point. It is one of the leading causes of missed workdays and can significantly impact daily activities. Determining the underlying cause of back pain is crucial for effective treatment. A lumbar spine MRI can help identify potential spinal issues and guide the path to treatment.

Lumbar spine MRI is a non-invasive diagnostic tool that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of the lower back. It allows healthcare providers to assess the vertebrae, discs, spinal cord, and nerves in the lumbar region. This procedure can help diagnose various conditions, such as disc herniation, spinal stenosis, tumors, and infections.

While undergoing an MRI can be a source of anxiety for some individuals, it is often the first step in determining the cause of persistent or severe lower back pain. 

If you have been experiencing lower back pain and are considering an MRI scan, it is essential to discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider. They can help determine if an MRI is necessary based on your symptoms and medical history. By taking this proactive step, you can gain valuable insights into the cause of your back pain and work towards a treatment plan that helps you regain your quality of life.

Symptoms that May Warrant a Spine MRI

Certain symptoms may indicate the need for a spine MRI to diagnose potential issues accurately. These symptoms include:

  • Shooting or burning pain in the spine or down the limbs 
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet 
  • Weakness in any part of the body 
  • Inability to pass urine or stools 
  • Inability to control urine or stools 
  • Difficulty with walking and balance 
  • Severe back pain 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 relieved by pain medication 
  • Leg numbness or weakness that is getting worse 

MRI is not always necessary for routine low back pain without any of these "red flag" symptoms. The decision to order an MRI should be made carefully by the healthcare provider.

MRI of the Lumbar Spine: With and Without Contrast

MRI of the Lumbar Spine With Contrast:

  • Contrast dye, usually gadolinium, may be injected intravenously during the MRI.
  • This can provide more detailed images, especially for conditions like tumors, infections, or suspected complications from prior spinal surgery.
  • The contrast helps highlight certain structures and abnormalities that may not be as visible without it.
  • Adding the contrast injection can extend the total scan time by an additional 15-30 minutes.
  • Patients with certain medical conditions or allergies may not be able to receive the contrast dye.

MRI of the Lumbar Spine Without Contrast:

  • This is the standard, baseline lumbar spine MRI procedure.
  • It involves taking detailed images of the bones, discs, spinal cord, and nerves in the lower back region.
  • The MRI machine uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to capture these images, without the use of ionizing radiation.
  • The scan typically takes 30-60 minutes to complete, though it can be up to 2 hours in some cases.
  • No contrast dye is injected, making this a simpler and more common procedure.

In both cases, the patient will be asked to lie very still on a table that slides into the MRI machine. Earplugs are provided to muffle the loud noises made by the machine during imaging. Overall, the lumbar spine MRI is a safe, non-invasive procedure that can give doctors valuable information to diagnose and treat lower back problems.

What Do You See in a Lumbar MRI?

The lumbar MRI can provide detailed images of the bones (vertebrae), discs, spinal cord, and nerves in the lower back region. Some key things a lumbar MRI can help identify include:

  • Herniated or bulging discs: Discs that are pressing on nerves and causing pain or numbness.
  • Spinal stenosis: A narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.
  • Tumors, infections, or other abnormalities: Issues affecting the bones, discs, or surrounding tissues.
  • Bone marrow lesions: Problems in the bone at the end of the vertebrae that may be linked to low back pain.
  • Spondylolysis: A defect or stress fracture in the vertebrae.

The MRI images can help diagnose the underlying cause of symptoms like lower back pain, leg pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness. 

What to Expect During Your Lumbar Spine MRI

1. Remove any metal objects and change into a gown.

2. An IV may be placed for contrast dye.

3. Lie on a table that slides into the MRI machine's tunnel.

4. Earplugs or headphones will reduce the machine's loud knocking noises.

5. The technologist will position you so your lower back is centered.

6. The table will move you into the machine.

7. Lie very still for 30-60 minutes as the machine takes images.

8. If contrast is used, it will be injected during the scan.

9. After the scan, the table slides out and you can typically drive yourself home.

10. A radiologist will analyze the images and provide a report to your doctor.

How is a Lumbar MRI Performed?

A lumbar MRI is a painless, non-invasive procedure that does not require any recovery time. You will change into a hospital gown or loose, comfortable clothing and lie on a table that slides into a doughnut-shaped machine. The technician may use straps or blocks to ensure proper positioning, and you can inform them of any discomfort.

The machine will make loud noises during the scan, but earplugs are provided for comfort. If you experience claustrophobia, a short-bore MRI with a smaller tube may be used. Once the scan is complete, the technician will review the images before you are free to resume your normal activities.

A radiologist will analyze the MRI and send the results to you. The entire process is safe, non-invasive, and designed to provide valuable information about your lower back without causing any pain or requiring significant recovery time.

How Long Does a Lumbar MRI Take?

A lumbar spine MRI typically takes 30 to 60 minutes to complete. However, the exact duration can vary depending on several factors:

  • The number of images needed for a detailed analysis
  • Whether contrast dye is used, which can add an extra 15-30 minutes
  • If sedation is required for patients who have difficulty staying still

In some cases, a lumbar MRI may be as short as 30 minutes if no contrast is needed. But it can last up to 2 hours if many images are required or if the patient needs sedation.

Schedule your scan

Back pain is an incredibly common issue, with nearly 80% of people in the UK experiencing it at some point in their lives. In fact, it is currently the leading cause of disability. Dealing with persistent back pain can be a frustrating and debilitating experience, making even simple daily tasks a challenge.

Opting for a private MRI scan can help you avoid long wait times often associated with public healthcare systems like the NHS, leading to a quicker diagnosis and the first step toward rehabilitation and returning to your normal life.

Ready to take the first step toward relief? Book your MRI scan today and start your journey to recovery. Don't let Lower back pain hold you back any longer - schedule your scan now.

Lorea content writter
Reviewed by
Dr. Sachin Shah
Clinical Lead
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Frequently asked questions

Do I need a GP-referral?

No prior GP-referral is required. Booking with us includes a GP phone consultation and referral. Shortly after booking you will be contacted by a GP from our team who will discuss your scan and provide a referral.

How long is an MRI scan?

MRI scans generally take a bit longer than other types of scans. Individual scans take 10-30 minutes depending on the body part being scanned, overall it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 90 minutes. You do have to lay very still for an MRI and if there is movement the scan may need to be repeated which can add some additional time.

What’s included in my booking?

With your GetScanned booking, you will receive:

  • A pre-scan phone consultation with a member of our medical team.
  • A referral for the scan.
  • Scheduling of a private MRI scan at your preferred scanning centre.
  • Access to your written report by a radiologist.
  • Access to your scan images (online and downloadable).

How much is a private MRI scan?

A private MRI scan cost varies depending on the part of the body being scanned and the location the scan is performed. Generally, a private MRI scan in the UK starts at around £350, and includes the scheduling, scan itself and results.

What’s the difference between an open and closed MRI?

Closed MRI machines are the traditional and first type of MRI. They are used more frequently because they provide higher quality images, however they aren’t ideal for certain types of scan or when the patient has limited mobility. Open or wide-bore MRI machines don’t involve lying in a tight cylinder, instead they have wider openings with more space and are therefore considered better if you suffer from claustrophobia. A standing MRI or upright MRI is a new type of open MRI that allows the patient to be in various different positions, including weight bearing positions. If you would prefer an open MRI please filter by MRI type to find an open MRI near you, but please be aware it is only available at certain locations.

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