A lumbar magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is a imaging method that uses powerful magnets and radio waves to create pictures of the lower part of the spine. This area is also called the lumbar spine.
An MRI does not use radiation (x-rays).
Single MRI images are called slices. The images can be stored on a computer or printed on film. One exam produces dozens or sometimes hundreds of images.
Magnetic resonance imaging - lumbar spine; MRI - lower back
How the test is performed
You may be asked to wear a hospital gown or clothing without metal fasteners (such as sweatpants and a t-shirt). Certain types of metal can cause blurry images.
You will lie on a narrow table, which slides into a large tunnel-like tube.
Some exams require a special dye (contrast). The dye is usually given before the test through a vein (IV) in your hand or forearm. The dye helps the radiologist see certain areas more clearly.
During the MRI, the person who operates the machine will watch you from another room. The test most often lasts 30-60 minutes, but may take longer.
How to prepare for the test
You may be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4 - 6 hours before the scan.
Tell your doctor if you are afraid of close spaces (have claustrophobia). You may be given a medicine to help you feel sleepy and less anxious, or your doctor may suggest an "open" MRI, in which the machine is not as close to the body.
Before the test, tell your health care provider if you have:
Brain aneurysm clips
Certain types of artificial heart valves
Heart defibrillator or pacemaker
Inner ear (cochlear) implants
Kidney disease or dialysis (you may not be able to receive contrast)
Consult your health care provider with any questions and concerns.
What the risks are
MRI contains no radiation. To date, no side effects from the magnetic fields and radio waves have been reported.
The most common type of contrast (dye) used is gadolinium. It is very safe. Allergic reactions to the substance rarely occur. However, gadolinium can be harmful to patients with kidney problems who require dialysis. If you have kidney problems, please tell your health care provider before the test
The strong magnetic fields created during an MRI can cause heart pacemakers and other implants to not work as well. It can also cause other pieces of metal inside your body to move or shift.
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Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine; C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.