Magnetic resonance imaging - lumbar spine; MRI - lower back
How the Test is Performed
You will wear a hospital gown or clothes without metal snaps or zippers (such as sweatpants and a t-shirt). Make sure you take off your watch, jewelry and watches. Some types of metal can cause blurry images.
You will lie on a narrow table that slides into a large tunnel-like tube.
Some exams require a special dye (contrast). Most of the time, you will get the dye through a vein (IV) in your hand or arm before the test. You can also get the dye through an injection. 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 to 60 minutes, but may take longer.
How to Prepare for the Test
You may be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4 to 6 hours before the scan.
Tell your health care provider if you are afraid of closed spaces (have claustrophobia). You may be given a medicine to help you feel sleepy and less anxious. Your provider may suggest an "open" MRI, in which the machine is not as close to the body.
Before the test, tell your 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)
Talk to your provider about your questions and concerns.
MRI contains no radiation. There have been no reported side effects from the magnetic fields and radio waves.
The most common type of contrast (dye) used is gadolinium. It is very safe. Allergic reactions to this dye are rare. However, gadolinium can be harmful to people with kidney problems that need dialysis. If you have kidney problems, please tell your 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. For safety reasons, please do not bring anything that contains metal into the scanner room.
Chou R, Qaseem A, Owens DK, Shekelle P; for the Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of Physicians. Diagnostic Imaging for Low Back Pain: Advice for High-Value Health Care From the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2011 Feb 1;154(3):181-9. PMID: 21282698 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21282698.
Wilkinson ID, Graves MJ.. Magnetic resonance imaging: In: Adam A, Dixon AK, Gillard JH, Schaefer-Prokop CM, eds. Grainger & Allison's Diagnostic Radiology: A Textbook of Medical Imaging. 6th ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 5.
C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.