MRI Scan For Lower Back Pain (What to Expect)

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In this post, I will discuss an MRI scan for lower back pain. Often, a doctor will order an MRI to work out a plan of attack for treating back pain.  If you have never had the experience of an MRI, please stay tuned.  I will walk you through the process and give you my personal experience with this routine procedure.

MRI Machine
U.S. Navy photo

Let’s face it; our backs are complicated, consisting of things like muscles, joints, bones, ligaments, discs, and much more.  All of these components need to work together as a cohesive unit for your back to operate efficiently.

There are a wide variety of problems that can cause back pain and require an MRI. You can strain a muscle, or rupture a disc, for example. These muscle strains or disc problems can be caused by a wide range of things, like a sports injury or a car accident, even the simple act of picking up a child or a load of laundry can result in back pain.

Unfortunately, back pain is pretty darn common, and experts estimate that up to 80% of people will experience back pain at some point in their life [1].  Lower back pain can affect anyone and does not discriminate based on age or gender. Back pain is also a significant cause of disability for working adults.

Low back pain costs Americans at least $50 billion in healthcare cost each year [2], and more than that when you factor in lost wages and decreased productivity at work.  Needless to say, lower back pain can have a significant impact on our lives.

What is an MRI?

According to Mayo Clinic, magnetic resonance imaging is a technique that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the organs and tissues in your body.  An MRI machine itself is a long tube that you lay down in and take pictures of your insides.

In the case of lower back pain, an MRI creates a detailed image of your spine and can pick up injuries, or other changes that may happen as you age.  This allows doctors an inside look as to what may be causing your back pain.

My experience has been that if your pain does not go away in a reasonable amount of time, an MRI can be used to help figure out the source of the pain.  A lot of times, back pain will or go away with time or exercise in which case an MRI is not needed.

How to prepare for an MRI

Since you will be inside a giant magnet, you will need to fill out a MRI screening form in case you may have any metal (known or unknown) in your body.  You will also be asked to remove items like jewelry, watches, glasses, etc.; these are a no-no with MRI machines as they can interfere with the magnetic field.  Metal is the biggest obstacle with an MRI machine.

Other than that, there is not a whole lot to do in advance of your MRI.  Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, you can eat normally and take any medication you typically would.

Most likely, you will have to change into a gown before the exam, and that is always so much fun. I recommend you wear loose fitting clothes, they might just let you in without a gown if there are no metal fasteners on your clothes.  Have no fear, though, an MRI technologist will run you through the process so you can rest easy.

MRI precautions

Again, the MRI technologist will ask you some basic health questions and ask you to remove items like jewelry, watches, glasses, etc. You want everything to go as smooth as possible, so please be compliant :).  There are also certain precautions for pregnant women, so if this is you, please let the MRI tech know.

What to expect with an MRI

Well, basically you lie down on a table, and they slide you into a long tube with magnets humming in a creepy, err, consistent rhythm all around you.  It’s kind of like being in an episode of Twilight Zone.  I have one word of warning, if you are claustrophobic, you may want to talk to your doctor and see if they can prescribe some kind of a relaxant to help.  I will get more into that a little bit later.

Some people fall asleep during an MRI, they think the creepy noise of the machine is actually soothing and comforting; I am not one of those people.

Sometimes the doctor will order the MRI with contrast dye to improve the quality of the images.  An MRI may or may not be administered with contrast dye; it just depends on what the doctor orders.

If you do need contrast, this is not a big deal, BUT the MRI tech will poke you with a needle so they can inject the dye during the exam.  So if you have trypanophobia (fear of needles), you will want to prepare for that.

You also have to remain pretty darn still throughout the exam so that they can have clear images to look at.  Imagine you are taking pictures, you need a steady hand, so the pictures are not blurry right?

When should you have an MRI?

You and your doctor will determine if and when an MRI is necessary.  Sometimes a doctor will order an MRI right away, or if you keep going back for several visits, this may trigger him or her to order an MRI to get a closer look.MRI scan for lower back pain

In my case, I was working with my chiropractor for a pretty severe back injury, and he decided an MRI would be useful to have.  My recovery was slow, and my chiro wanted to see if there were any other abnormalities that we might be dealing with.

How long does an MRI take?

I have had a couple of different areas of my body scanned, including my knee and my lower back.  The MRI for my knee was pretty quick; I was in and out there in about 20 minutes.  Not so much for my lower back, which was closer to an hour.  More on that later.

How much does an MRI cost?

Well, they are pretty darn expensive from what I can tell.  After my MRI scan in 2016, I got a bill in the mail for over $1,000 even though my insurance company told me it would be covered.  Anyway, long story short, insurance eventually paid for it.  The long and short of it is, MRI’s ARE EXPENSIVE.

My experience with MRI

Okay, now for the fun part.  The first time I had an MRI; it was for a lower back injury…piece of cake, I wasn’t nervous at all. This MRI was for sciatica that would not go away.

The next MRI was for a knee injury.  That is when things got a little weird for me.

Even though the scan was for my knee, they put me pretty darn far into that tube, with the creepy humming sound all around.  I was lying down on the table, and my head was still outside of the MRI machine.  Even so, I felt a bit claustrophobic.

This was new for me, I had never had that closed in feeling of anxiety before.  I just kept craning my neck a little bit so that I could see the ceiling of the room, and that took away most of the anxiety I was feeling.  But I tell you what, that was very strange, even though my head was out of the machine, I still felt trapped.

Fast forward to 2016, I had just suffered another lower back injury, a pretty bad one this time. Me being stupid at the gym and not learning from my previous mistakes, landed me with spinal stenosis.  I was hunched over about 30 degrees at the waist and was unable to straighten up for months.

My chiropractor ordered an MRI with and without contrast.  So that means they would perform the first part of the exam without contrast dye and then inject me for the second part of the exam.  Easy enough, right?  Not so fast.

First of all, I couldn’t lay down flat in my own bed at home due to spinal stenosis, so how was I supposed to lay completely still for an hour in an MRI machine?  Well, the MRI tech did provide me with a pillow to prop my legs up, but this was going to be a challenging experience for me.

So I gritted my teeth, laid down and in I went.  I was concentrating really hard on not moving, and I tried really hard to crane my neck backward so I could see out into the MRI room.  The problem I have with an MRI is the small space.  The machine is very close to your face (literally inches) and I apparently I get severely claustrophobic.  BUT, I knew I had to do this and only had one shot since my insurance wouldn’t pay for a “do over.”

Well, I held it together pretty good for a while, I ended up closing my eyes and tried to relax.  The problem is, I was in pain because laying down on my back was killing me.  Add that to my already heightened anxiety level, and pretty soon, I wanted out!

I tried really hard to catch some deep breaths and relax, and I was able to hold it together long enough to get the scan done without the contrast.  Then I pushed the button to let the tech know I was feeling squeamish.  I was sweating at this point, and I couldn’t take much more if at all.

They decided to give me a break. I decided I was done.  At least we were able to get the complete scan without contrast, but I was concerned my chiropractor would really need the additional scan.  I just wasn’t up to it.

Now mind you I have a high pain tolerance, and I am a fairly tough guy overall, but I tell you what, this MRI machine kicked my butt. I know it’s all mental, and some people just go in there and fall asleep, but not this cowboy.

That experience has honestly shaped my psyche, and I am now uncomfortable in tight spaces where I haven’t been in the past.  That is a story for another day.

So there you have it. Form whatever opinion you want about me and my silly claustrophobic experience, I don’t care LOL.

At the end of the day, I hung in there long enough to get what my chiro needed, but I wish I could have conquered that MRI.

Conclusion: MRI scan for lower back pain

MRI’s are extremely beneficial, and if you have never had one, hopefully, you have a better understanding, especially given my personal experience. I am sure I am not alone, but I am also sure that most people don’t have a problem with MRI’s.

Having an MRI is not scary, but I do recommend that if you have any issues with closed in spaces, you might want to discuss that with your doctor before the exam.  Your doctor may be able to prescribe a relaxant to help you get through it.

As always, I appreciate you stopping by today.  If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below, and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

For more information on what has helped me with lower back pain, click here for more details.

Feel free to contact me directly as well.



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6 thoughts on “MRI Scan For Lower Back Pain (What to Expect)”

  1. I’ve only ever really seen MRI’s in TV shows and films, they seem quite easy to go through, unless you’re maybe claustrophobic. It sounded like your experiences varied from ok to anxiety raising. The fact that it’s so expensive for only 20 minutes feels like a joke, this should be provided more openly. Hopefully I won’t have to need one, I sometimes get a sore back, I work in an office so I’m trying to keep my back straight. Informative post great job!

  2. Hi Steve!
    Thanks for this post, it’s really nice to have this breakdown about MRI’s. You made it so easy to understand, and I feel like it’s a lot more clear to me now. I have never had one, but after reading about your experience, I hope I never will. I live in Belgium, and MRI’s are completely covered under my health insurance, so I was really shocked when I read how much you are paying for one. It must be nerve-wracking to have severe claustrophobia and be aware of the fact that a do-over will cost you 1000 dollars.
    Thank you for the tip about the relaxant, I will keep it in mind if I ever need one!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Melanie. Yes, it is a bit overwhelming when you factor in the cost you may end up paying, and the fact that I seem to have developed some claustrophobia during my life. Let me know if you have any questions, and thanks for stopping by.

  3. Do they put your whole head in for a low back?? That would freak me the heck out! I’ve had them for knee and foot issues and have a low back (lumbar) scheduled. What I found most unnerving is I have noticed the metal in my body gets slightly warmer and seems to start vibrating at a low frequency. It’s really creepy! I made them stop it when they did my knee because it just feels like little tiny bugs crawling around the warming metal. Granted I do have quite a bit (wired foot, tibial rod, total knee and hip, and pins in both thumbs).
    But good news for people who do have implants! If anybody was going to explode apart inside one of the things you think I would’ve been the first. 😉

  4. Hi….I had an MRI scan yesterday and my experience was exactly the same as yours. I pushed the button too…I’d had enough. I’m so grateful to read your account….now I don’t feel as stupid as I did when I left the unit.


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