Spine Imaging Techniques – X-Rays, MRIs & CT Scans

Category: Procedures, Spine | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: May 18, 2017

Spine MRI

Certain injuries can be diagnosed just by examining the injury with the naked eye, but when it comes to back injuries, imaging techniques are usually needed to uncover the true extent of the injury. Doctors have a number of tools at their disposal when it comes to diagnosing spine injuries, and today, we’re going to take a look at three of the most common imaging tools and explain why they are used over other techniques.


Spine X-Rays

X-rays are probably the most common diagnostic tool when someone suffers an acute trauma, but they are more common in injuries to your extremities like your feet and hands. That’s because an X-ray helps visualize the bones in the body, meaning it can identify fractures or dislocations. However, a number of injuries to the spine involve issues with the nearby soft tissues or the spinal cord, which does not show up on a standard X-ray. An X-ray may be used to identify vertebral fractures of the spine or disc degeneration in the form of smaller disc height, but they can’t show soft tissue injuries. They are a relatively low-cost option, which is why they are often the first diagnostic choice when a fracture is suspected.

Spinal MRI

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, and it helps provide a much clearer picture of what’s going on in your spine. The technique uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to produce a detailed picture of soft tissues and other internal body structures, like your spinal cord. It takes more time than a CT scan, but there is no radiation exposure with MRI machines. An MRI is often preferred when an injury to a spinal ligament, joint, tendon or soft tissue is suspected, because it offers a clear picture of these structures. It is more expensive than an X-ray, but it offers a much more in-depth picture.

Spinal CT Scan

The “CT” in CT scan stands for Computed Tomography, and it allows the doctor to view a 360-degree cross-sectional view of the area. CT scans help the doctor to visualize the bones, soft tissues and blood vessels all at the same time. The procedure is painless but the patient is exposed to a larger dose of radiation. Since CT scans produce a 360-degree image, they are often used to view spinal tumors, cysts or other abnormal growths so surgeons can best identify how to safely remove them. Also, a CT scan may be ordered to view the stability of previously inserted metal hardware, as an MRI would not be advised since magnetic waves are used. CT scans are usually less expensive than MRIs, but that is not always the case.

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