When you see a doctor about a spine-related problem, you’ll likely undergo a thorough physical examination and be asked to describe your symptoms and give some details about your history with back and/or neck pain. With some issues, such as a neck sprain or muscle spasms in the lower back, this may be enough to make a diagnosis. However, there are times when image testing has to be done to get a better view of what’s going on with the spine. Here’s a closer look at three common spine imaging tests and what conditions they can accurately diagnose.
An X-ray is a standard image test. It’s also the least expensive of the three options discussed here. X-rays provide clear images of the spinal bones, including vertebrae and joints. They can also give a doctor an idea of the integrity (e.g., strength, health, and shape) of spinal bones. While X-rays aren’t normally performed for suspected herniated discs, they can pinpoint areas of wear. This information can then be used to know where to perform other image tests if there’s a need for more detailed images. Common conditions/issues that may require X-rays include: • Bulging or herniated discs • Vertebral or spinal joint fractures • Scoliosis and similar spinal deformities • Suspected displaced spinal hardware following fusion surgery
Because X-rays don’t provide clear images of soft tissues, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be recommended for problems related to non-bone tissues in or around the spine. An MRI works by using a combination of radio waves and a magnetic field to produce a detailed image of the spine. Unlike X-rays, MRIs don’t produce or use radiation. While an MRI is more expensive than an X-ray, the detailed images it produces can make it easier to diagnose a wide range of spine-related issues with better certainty. Some of these include: • Pinched or compressed spinal nerves • Spinal stenosis and other issues within the spinal canal • Disc-related problems (e.g., disc “bulging” or slippage) • Spinal or vertebral fractures that may have affected nearby soft tissues
A computed tomography (CT) scan combines the use of X-rays with a computer to produce clear images of bones, tissues, and organs. Radiation is produced with a CT scan. However, it doesn’t stay in the body after the scan is completed. Also, a CT scan generates a cross-sectional image of the affected area of the spine that’s sometimes transferred to a 3D printer to create a detailed model of the image. This gives a doctor or Santa Monica spine surgeon the ability to see the spine and its various blood vessels and soft tissues simultaneously. Possible spine-related reasons for a CT scan include:
• Determining if other structures in the spine are affected beyond what was initially seen on a regular X-ray • Diagnosing internal damage around the spine after an accident or injury • Confirming or ruling out spinal column damage • Viewing the area of the spine where an implanted device is located While image tests can provide some useful information or confirm a suspected problem, an accurate diagnosis is also based on a solid understanding of how symptoms are directly affecting you. To help you provide a better description of what you’re experiencing, you may be asked to keep a journal for a brief time so you can make note of what seems to trigger your discomfort along with when your pain is worse and what seems to make your symptoms less distracting.
Imaging tests can be very effective at diagnosing a wide range of spine-related issues, and they often help doctors make final decisions about recommended treatment, which may eventually include a surgical procedure such as extreme lateral interbody fusion. Santa Monica residents who are experiencing severe or prolonged pain in the back or neck should contact the spine specialists at The Spine Institute. Our cutting-edge treatment methods and pioneering physicians lead the spinal health industry, and we have decades of experience with every aspect of back pain and how to alleviate it. To schedule a consultation, call one of our friendly representatives today at 310-828-7757.