What does an MRI scan of the cervical spine (upper neck) show?
MRI scans are frequently used to evaluate the structures of the cervical spine, also known as the upper neck. A variety of trends have increased the use of MRI in evaluating the spine - more sports activity, computer use, and we've remained much more active into our later years than previous generations.
If you've injured your neck or have chronic neck pain, your doctor will probably first order an x-ray. After an x-ray, an MRI may be needed to evaluate the internal structures of the cervical spine. On your doctor's order for the MRI you might see:
"r/o disc disease" - this refers to the discs that act as shock absorbers between the vertebral bodies of the spine. They can be injured or "flatten" over time and bulge and press on nerve roots. These are the dark flat structures between the tall, somewhat square gray bones (the vertebral bodies) in the picture to the right.
"r/o herniation"- this refers to a disc herniation. If the outer part of the disc tears, a jelly like substance can escape out (aka herniate) and cause radiating pain or weakness in the neck, shouder, arm or hand.
"r/o stenosis" - this refers to narrowing of the spinal canal and openings for the nerve roots. Bulging discs and other degenerative changes of the spine can narrow the spinal canal, causing neck pain or weakness. In the picture you can see the spinal cord as the long light grey structure, just behind the vertebral bodies, surrounded by white fluid.
(FYI - "r/o" is short for "rule out")
An MRI of the cervical spine will evaluate:
A cervical spine MRI will include the cervical vertebral bodies, lamina, facets, spinous process and parts of the upper thoracic spine and lower brain. The cervical spine MRI can detect bone fractures, tumors, infection and evaluate
post-surgical changes. An MRI can also determine the extent of degenerative changes (arthritis) and be used for pre-operative planning for spinal fusion.
Cervcial spine MRIs are very good at looking at the discs between your vertebral bodies. A cervical spine MRI can detect disc flattening, bulges, herniations, and infection (aka discitis).
Spinal Canal and Neural Foramina
Spinal nerves arise from spinal cord and leave the spinal canal through holes called the neural foramina. The canal and these exit points can be blocked and cause neck, shoulder, arm, hand pain or weakness.
Cerebellum and Brain Stem
Parts of the lower brain including the cerebellum are seen. Some cerebellar conditions such as Chiari malformations can present with neck pain. The brain stem is continuous with the upper cervical spinal cord though usually not a cause of issues with the cervical spine. In the picture the cerebellum is the cauliflower shaped structure and the brainstem is the tissue just in front of it.
This refers to the muscles and tissues around your cervical spine. The cervical spine MRI can detect infections, fluid collections and tumors of these structures.
Your Cervical Spine MRI Scan
A cervical spine MRI generally takes about 20-30 minutes or so to complete. If you are going for one, wear loose comfortable clothing and remember to remove all metal (jewelry, phones, rings, etc) before going into the MRI scan room. If you've had surgery or have a history of cancer, you'll probably have the test done with MRI contrast.
If you're insured. you may need to have your test authorized (approved) by your insurance company first. If you're uninsured use our website to look up MRI of the cervical spine scan costs. find a certified imaging center and buy your test with a credit card.
Have you had a Cervical Spine MRI scan? What was it like? Please leave your comments below.