An MRI utilizes powerful magnets and radio waves to replicate an image of the inside of your body. With the image, your physician will use this image to help with a diagnosis or to help get a visual image of how successful your treatment plan was.

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MRI Scan

Medical imaging plays a crucial role in diagnosing and guiding treatment for various conditions, including spine-related issues. Among the most advanced imaging techniques available, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) stands out as a valuable tool for spine surgeons. On this webpage, we will explore the MRI machine and how it captures detailed images.  In addition, this page will show had an MRI differs from X-rays and CT scans, and the ways in which MRI scans can assist spine surgeons in their practice.

How an MRI Machine Works

An MRI machine utilizes a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the body’s internal structures. The process involves the following steps:

  • Patient Preparation: The patient lies on a table that slides into the MRI machine. Also, it is important to remove any metal objects, as they can interfere with the magnetic field.
  • Magnetic Field Alignment: The MRI machine generates a strong magnetic field that aligns the hydrogen atoms in the body’s tissues.
  • Radio Wave Pulse: Radio waves are emitted into the body, causing the aligned hydrogen atoms to produce signals.
  • Signal Detection and Image Formation: Specialized sensors in the MRI machine detect signals emitted by hydrogen atoms and create precise images.  Additionally, the images are based on the differences in tissue composition and magnetic properties.

Differences Between MRI, X-ray, and CT Scans

While X-rays and CT scans provide valuable diagnostic information, they have limitations.  Their shortcomings are in visualizing certain aspects of the spine compared to MRI scans:

  • Soft Tissue Visualization: MRI excels in visualizing soft tissues, including discs, nerves, ligaments, and blood vessels. This allows for a detailed assessment of spinal conditions such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis, or tumors.
  • Multi-Planar Imaging: The MRI captures images in multiple planes (sagittal, coronal, and axial), providing comprehensive views of the spine from different angles. For example, this permits surgeons to assess complex spinal structures and abnormalities more accurately.
  • Lack of Ionizing Radiation: Unlike X-rays and CT scans, which utilize ionizing radiation, MRI does not expose patients to harmful radiation. Therefore, this makes it safer for repeated imaging, particularly for younger patients or pregnant women.

Role of MRI Scans in Spine Surgery

MRI scans are invaluable in aiding the Southwest Scoliosis and Sine Institute spine surgeons throughout various stages of patient care:

  • Diagnosis: The MRI provides detailed images of the spine.  This helps surgeons identify specific conditions, such as herniated discs, spinal tumors, spinal cord compression, or nerve impingement. Accurate diagnosis guides treatment decisions and helps tailor surgical approaches to individual patients.
  • Surgical Planning: By examining MRI scans, spine surgeons can assess the extent and location of spinal abnormalities.  Additional surgeons can plan incisions, determine the need for instrumentation or fusion, and anticipate potential complications. This preoperative planning enhances surgical precision and improves patient outcomes.
  • Postoperative Evaluation: After surgery, MRI scans are utilized to evaluate the success of the procedure.  Furthermore, doctors can assess the fusion or healing of bones, and detect any postoperative complications or residual issues. This enables surgeons to monitor patient progress and make any necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.


The MRI machine is a powerful diagnostic tool that provides detailed images of the spine.  The MRI surpasses the capabilities of X-rays and CT scans in visualizing soft tissues and offering multi-planar views. Its ability to produce high-resolution images aids spine surgeons in accurately diagnosing spinal conditions, planning surgical procedures, and monitoring postoperative outcomes. With its non-invasive nature and superior soft tissue visualization, the MRI machine continues to revolutionize the field of spine surgery.  This contributes to improved patient care and outcomes.

Why Use an MRI?

The MRI shows the spine in very clear detail, including information about the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and discs. Also, the MRI will show a loss of water in the nucleus pulposus, which occurs in the earliest stage of disc degeneration. Furthermore, an MRI shows facet joint arthritis, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), or a herniated disc (protrusion or rupture of the intervertebral disc). Finally, the MRI test provides doctors with the ability to diagnose problems with the spine and the surrounding soft tissues.

How Does an MRI Take Images of a Patient?

The machine’s scanner takes many pictures that are watched and monitored by a technician. The MRI scanner makes noise; so you might be offered headphones to listen to music while the scan takes place. While the scan takes place, the patient lies in a narrow tunnel, which may cause some patients to feel claustrophobic. The doctor may give the patient a mild sedative to make the experience more tolerable. Open MRI machines are sometimes more comfortable for patients who experience claustrophobia.  However, the images are not as clear as the other types. The procedure takes approximately 30-60 minutes.


If you or a loved one suffers from spinal pain, you owe it to yourself to call Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute at 214-556-0555 to make an appointment.