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When is an MRI useful for Cervical Pain?

When is an MRI useful for Cervical Pain?
When is an MRI useful for Cervical Pain?

When is an MRI useful for Cervical Pain?

An MRI is a very safe and painless diagnostic test that uses radio waves and magnetic fields to create very detailed images of the structures inside your body. Unlike X-rays that only visualize the bone abnormalities, the MRI can visualize bone, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and muscles. Let’s consider some situations where an MRI is useful to help diagnose the cause of neck, shoulder, or arm pain.

Over time and with repetitive stresses on the cervical spine, the cervical discs which are like shock absorbing cushions between the cervical vertebrae, get stretched and flattened like a deflated tire. The jelly-like substance inside the disc comes out through cracks in the disc and presses against the spinal cord or nerves resulting in the pain. This is known as a disc herniation. 

If the disc herniation is mild you may have a neck pain that can be alleviated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. Sometimes the pain may radiate to the shoulder or arm and down to your fingers. Other times it may cause weakness. This could be signs of a serious injury because the motor nerves which are responsible for movement are being affected.

A physical exam by a doctor can estimate the level of cervical damage by the pattern of symptoms. Besides neck pain, if you have numbness in your thumb, the C6 nerve root present between the 5th and 6th cervical vertebrae could be impinged. You will feel numbness in the index and middle fingers if the C7 nerve root is damaged.

Depending upon the severity of the herniation and impingement that can be visualized on the MRI scan, the appropriate conservative or surgical treatment can be planned.

Spinal stenosis is another condition that can be confirmed on MRI scanning and can help guide treatment. Degenerative changes result in the formation of bone spurs in the vertebrae that cause myelopathy or damage to the myelin sheath on the nerves resulting in pain and clumsiness in arm and hand movement. An MRI scan may be able to pick up such degenerative changes before any significant damage occurs to the nerves allowing a surgeon to perform decompression surgery to preserve finger, hand, and arm movement. 

Sudden onset or changes in your neck pain may also require an MRI scan to determine the underlying cause. The important thing to understand is that surgery is not necessarily the best treatment even if your neck pain is very severe or sudden; but, an MRI is the advanced diagnostic tool that can help your doctor personalize your treatment whether it’s conservative or surgical.


Our mission at Houston MRI ® & Diagnostic Imaging is to provide the patients and physicians with affordable medical diagnostic imaging in a warm and patient friendly environment. It is our goal to make the medical imaging procedure as pleasant as possible. Our promise to our communities is "hospital quality imaging without the hospital costs" with efficient service to both our patients and physicians.