explanation of the procedures before the lumbar scan

Lumbar MRI: Indications, Benefits, Risks (Complete Guide)

Article reviewed and approved by Dr. Ibtissama Boukas, physician specializing in family medicine 

Lumbar MRI is short for Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the lumbar spine. This is a medical imaging test used to clarify the diagnosis related to back pain.


How is a lumbar MRI performed, exactly? When will the doctor prescribe it? What is the difference between CT scan and X-ray? Should we prepare with the intervention?


This popular article explains everything you need to know about lumbar MRI if ever your doctor (or yourself) is considering this medical imaging to explain your pain.

What is a lumbar MRI?


Magnetic resonance imaging is a non-invasive diagnostic tool that uses radio waves and a magnetic field to produce detailed images of a region of the human body.


lumbar mri machine


It is a safe test because unlike CT scans and X-rays, it does not use potentially dangerous X-rays. This is especially useful for pregnant women or growing children.


In addition, unlike X-rays and CT scans where more bone is observed, lumbar MRI provides more information on the integrity of lumbar structures. In fact, we see the intervertebral discs, nerves and nerve roots, spinal cord, etc.


To produce an even more detailed image, it is possible to use a contrast medium such as gadolinium. These products are injected into a vein in the hand or arm intravenously.


Lumbar MRI, as its name suggests, is used when you want to clarify the diagnosis of lower back damage. On the other hand, if the pain is higher in the spine, a thoracolumbar MRI can be requested. Similarly, a lumbosacral MRI will provide additional information on the pelvis and sacroiliac region.





What exactly do we see on the lumbar MRI? What differentiates a normal or abnormal MRI? Does this examination automatically identify the cause of back pain?


back pain requiring a lumbar MRI


Not necessarily.


It should be noted that MRI is not recommended immediately when a patient suffers from back pain. As mentioned, this is because findings on lumbar MRI are not not always connected to the symptoms observed.


Here are situations where the doctor will prescribe an MRI:




Does lumbar MRI involve risks?


Lumbar MRI is a safe and painless examination. However, some precautions should be kept in mind.


explanation of the risks associated with lumbar MRI


For one thing, the magnetic field used by the MRI machine attracts metallic objects (like jewelry). This can cause them to move at high speed if they get too close to the machine, potentially injuring the patient.


The other element concerns metal implants (such as pacemakers, screws and rods, prostheses, etc.). If the magnetic field is strong enough, it can cause these metal objects to move in the body.


On the other hand, any metal implant does not necessarily constitute a contraindication to MRI. A doctor will be able to judge the relevance of using medical imaging despite the presence of these implants.


Finally, although very rare, these side effects have been observed following the lumbar MRI:


  • Thermal injury
  • Injury caused by the presence of metallic objects
  • Tinnitus and hearing loss
  • Injection site pain (if contrast material was used)
  • Nausea, vomiting and metallic taste in the mouth due to the contrast medium
  • Allergic reaction to gadolinium
  • Headache
  • Lower back pain due to prolonged static position
  • Urticaria



How is a lumbar MRI performed?


A medical imaging technician usually accompanies the patient during the procedure. Before starting, you may be asked to fast 3 to 5 hours before the examination (to be confirmed with your doctor). Likewise, it is essential to remove any metallic object (jewellery, keys, etc.) before the lumbar MRI.


First you have to lie on your back on a table that slides into the opening of the MRI machine. If a contrast product is necessary, it will be injected intravenously before the examination.


lumbar mri


As the machine can be very noisy, the technician also offers earplugs or headphones to the patient. A microphone will always be nearby to maintain contact with the technician.


To produce high quality images, the person must remain completely still during the entire process, otherwise the lumbar MRI may have to be repeated.



How long does a lumbar MRI take?


A lumbar MRI is a fairly short procedure, and the person is usually free to go home after the scan. In all, the examination lasts 20 to 35 minutes, but the procedure can extend up to 90 minutes depending on the patient.



Lumbar MRI and claustrophobia


Since the MRI involves lying in a cramped, windowless environment for a period of time, people with claustrophobia may find the procedure uncomfortable, even frightening.


If so, the doctor may prescribe an anxiolytic or sedative to help the person relax during the exam.



The end of the test and the results


After the lumbar MRI, the patient is usually free to go home. If a contrast product has been used, it can be kept a little longer. It is generally recommended that the person be accompanied when leaving the clinic.


The radiologist will study the lumbar MRI and write an imaging report in which he explains his findings, and issues an impression. This report (as well as the MRI CD) will then be forwarded to the attending physician.


reading of the lumbar MRI by the doctor


About a week after the lumbar MRI, a follow-up appointment will be organized with the doctor to explain the results and the resulting management. Sometimes a phone call by the attending physician will be enough.



How much does a lumbar MRI cost?


The price of an MRI varies by country. In France, Social Security offers reimbursement for MRIs. This is broken down into two parts. We are initially talking about the technical package, the amount of which is variable.


  • €244,68 for a full rate technical package
  • €85,68 for a technical package at a reduced rate


On the other hand, the costs vary enormously, for example if a contrast product has been used. Any excess can usually be covered by the mutual.


In addition to the technical package, medical fees are covered by Social Security at 70%. They cost 69 euros.





Lumbar MRI is often used to clarify the diagnosis related to back pain.


If the security measures are respected, it is a safe examination that offers a lot of relevant information on the structures of the lower back.


On the other hand, it must always be accompanied by a clinical examination aimed at corroborating the radiological findings, in order to obtain a more precise and representative picture.


A health professional is best able to guide you in the management of your back pain.


Good recovery !

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