A cervical MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a
imaging test that uses powerful magnets and radio waves to
create pictures of the part of the spine that runs through
the neck area. This area is called the cervical spine.
MRI does not use radiation (x-rays).
MRI images are called slices. The images can be stored
on a computer or printed on film. One exam produces dozens
or sometimes hundreds of images.
How the Test is Performed
You may be asked to wear a hospital gown or clothing
without metal fasteners (such as sweatpants and a t-shirt).
Certain types of metal can cause blurry images.
You will lie on a narrow table, which slides into a
Some exams require a special dye (contrast). The dye is
usually given before the test through a vein (IV) in your
hand or forearm. The dye helps the radiologist see certain
areas more clearly.
During the MRI, the person who operates the machine will
watch you from another room. The test most often lasts 30-60
minutes, but may take longer.
How to Prepare for the Test
You may be asked not to eat or drink anything for 4 - 6
hours before the scan.
Tell your doctor if you are afraid of close spaces (have
claustrophobia). You may be given a medicine to help you
feel sleepy and less anxious, or your doctor may suggest an
"open" MRI, in which the machine is not as close to the
Before the test, tell your health care provider if you
- Brain aneurysm clips
- Certain types of artificial heart valves
- Heart defibrillator or pacemaker
- Inner ear (cochlear) implants
- Kidney disease or dialysis (you may not be able to
- Recently placed artificial joints
- Certain types of vascular
- Worked with sheet metal in the past (you may need
tests to check for metal pieces in your eyes)
Because the MRI contains strong magnets, metal objects
are not allowed into the room with the MRI scanner:
- Pens, pocketknives, and eyeglasses may fly across the
- Items such as jewelry, watches, credit cards, and
hearing aids can be damaged.
- Pins, hairpins, metal zippers, and similar metallic
items can distort the images.
- Removable dental work should be taken out just before
How the Test Will Feel
An MRI exam causes no pain. If you have difficulty lying
still or are very nervous, you may be given a medicine to
relax you. Too much movement can blur MRI images and cause
The table may be hard or cold, but you can request a
blanket or pillow. The machine produces loud thumping and
humming noises when turned on. You can wear ear plugs to
help reduce the noise.
An intercom in the room allows you to speak to someone at
any time. Some MRIs have televisions and special headphones
that you can use to help the time pass.
There is no recovery time, unless you were given a
medicine to relax. After an MRI scan, you can resume your
normal diet, activity, and medications.
Why the Test is Performed
This test is most commonly done when you have:
- Severe neck or arm pain that does not get better after
- Neck pain along with leg weakness, numbness, or other
A cervical MRI scan may also be done for:
- Birth defects of the spine
- Infection that involves your spine
- Injury or trauma to the spine
- Multiple sclerosis
- Severe scoliosis
- Tumor or cancer in the spine
MRI usually works better than CT scan in diagnosing these
A cervical MRI may also be done before spinal surgery.
A normal result means the part of the spine that runs
through your neck and nearby nerves appear normal.
What Abnormal Results Mean
The most common reasons for an abnormal result are:
Abnormal results may also be due to:
Consult your health care provider with any questions and
MRI contains no radiation. To date, no side effects from
the magnetic fields and radio waves have been reported.
The most common type of contrast (dye) used is
gadolinium. It is very safe. Allergic reactions to the
substance rarely occur. However, gadolinium can be harmful
to patients with kidney problems who require dialysis. If
you have kidney problems, please tell your health care
provider before the test
The strong magnetic fields created during an MRI can
cause heart pacemakers and other implants to not work as
well. It can also cause a piece of metal inside your body to
move or shift.
MRI - cervical spine; MRI - neck
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Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX
Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies,
University of Washington, School of Medicine; C. Benjamin
Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and
Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director,