Dear doctor, what will an MRI scan involve?

17 April 2018

Q: My GP has suggested I have an MRI scan to look at my lower back as I’ve been taking pain relief medication for a while now. What will this involve?

A: A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of your lower back (lumbar spine) uses magnets and radio waves in order to work. It has no known side effects and has been used effectively for diagnosing causes of back pain for several decades due to its ability to show bones, muscles, spinal cord and discs clearly. 

The scan is a safe, painless procedure which lasts for around 20 minutes and is broken into short bursts of about three minutes. It is however very noisy at certain times so you will be given headphones with your choice of music played. You are also given a buzzer to hold so you are always in control if you would like the scan to end.

Some hospitals will give you the option to see the scanner before booking an appointment so it’s worth enquiring if you are nervous about having an MRI scan. There are different types of scanners – the one at Spire Portsmouth Hospital is open both ends making it light and airy. For lower spine imaging you enter the machine feet first and your head will remain just at the entrance.  The radiographer operates the computer from a separate room but will be able to see you at all times through a window. You will be also be able to communicate with them through an intercom and your headphones.

After the procedure, you will be able to carry on with your day as normal. Your MRI scan will be studied by a radiologist (a trained doctor in interpreting scans and X-rays) and a report will be sent directly to your GP.

Lizzie Wilson is an MRI Specialist Radiographer at Spire Portsmouth Hospital.

The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other health care professional.


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