How does a cervical spine MRI help my healthcare provider diagnose MS?

May 3, 2024 – 9 min read

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If your healthcare provider suspects you may have multiple sclerosis (MS), they will probably recommend a cervical spine MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to help in the diagnosis. 

Today in the United States almost one million adults are living with MS, and for Americans, the risk of developing MS is about one in 333. 

Multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease with unpredictable periods of relapse and remission, and its severity and symptoms vary widely among individuals. 

It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective covering of nerve fibers, causing inflammation and lesions in the brain and spinal cord. 

This damage disrupts the communication between the brain and the rest of the body, leading to a wide range of symptoms such as fatigue, numbness or weakness in limbs, blurred vision, muscle stiffness, and difficulties with coordination and balance. 

Why MRI scans are a good choice for detecting MS

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) plays a crucial role in detecting multiple sclerosis (MS). In MS, your immune system attacks the myelin coating surrounding nerves. 

MRI scans can pick up these areas of damage, called lesions, in different parts of the central nervous system. MRI also helps shape how healthcare providers monitor and treat multiple sclerosis.

 What is an MRI scan? How does it work?

An MRI is a healthcare imaging technique that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the inside of the body. 

Inside an MRI machine, the magnetic field aligns the hydrogen atoms in the body’s tissues. 

Radio waves are then applied to the aligned atoms, causing them to produce faint signals. These signals are seen by the MRI machine and processed by a computer to create detailed cross-sectional images of the body’s internal structures. 

MRI scans are used to diagnose a variety of conditions, including tumors, injuries, and abnormalities in organs and tissues.

Why is the MRI considered a powerful tool in diagnosing neurological conditions like MS?

MRI scans are particularly useful in detecting damage to the myelin sheath (an insulating layer, or sheath, that forms around nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord) in the nervous system. 

The myelin sheath allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells. If the myelin sheath is damaged, these impulses slow down in the nervous system. 

The MRI’s ability to detect damage to the myelin sheath makes it a powerful, crucial tool in diagnosing MS. 

How does MRI technology differentiate between different tissues in the body?

MRI technology differentiates between different tissues in the body based on their water content and the relaxation times of hydrogen atoms. 

In an MRI scan, a strong magnetic field aligns the hydrogen atoms in the body. When radio waves are applied, the hydrogen atoms absorb and release energy, producing signals that vary depending on the tissue type. 

Tissues with high water content, like muscles, produce strong signals, while tissues with low water content, like bones, produce weaker signals. 

By analyzing these signals and their characteristics, MRI technology creates detailed images that distinguish between different tissues in the body.

How a cervical spine MRI scan can help diagnose MS

As we mentioned, cervical MRI scans are the preferred scan to diagnose, monitor, and manage multiple sclerosis, because they can provide precise and non-invasive imaging of the central nervous system, enabling healthcare providers to make informed decisions for the best care of their patients.

What features of the cervical spine does the MRI focus on?

A cervical spine scan MRI scan can give your healthcare provider important information about the spine in your neck (the cervical spine). This can include the spine, the space around the spinal cord, and the vertebrae in your neck. 

What are common signs of MS visible on a cervical spine MRI?

Because multiple sclerosis affects the central nervous system, white matter (the brain, cervical, and thoracic spine) may be involved with multiple sclerosis. Typical MS lesions are commonly egg-shaped in appearance, which look like bright white spots.

How do changes in the cervical spine on MRI correlate with MS symptoms?

Changes in the cervical spine on an MRI scan can provide valuable information about MS symptoms. 

In MS, lesions (or abnormalities) in the cervical spine can affect the nerves that send signals between the brain and the rest of the body. 

Changes in the cervical spine such as lesions can correlate with physical symptoms like numbness, weakness, or coordination problems. For example, lesions in the cervical spine can cause problems with motor function, sensation, and coordination in the arms, legs, and other parts of the body. 

Radiologist Tech and Patient preparing for an MRI

What to expect from your cervical spine MRI

A cervical spine MRI scan is very similar to a regular MRI scan. You will go through the same procedures with a cervical spine MRI scan as you would a regular MRI scan. 

A regular MRI scan includes the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine sections, whereas a cervical spine MRI scan focuses on cervical spine pain, injuries, and numbness radiating to the arm(s).

How should patients prepare for a cervical spine MRI?

You should prepare for a cervical spine MRI scan the same as you would for a regular MRI scan. 

Before you go to your appointment, remove all jewelry and clothing that contains metal. 

Let your technologist know if you have any metal implants in your body or any electronic devices, such as a pacemaker. 

Wear comfortable clothes as you will probably be asked to change into a hospital gown for the scan.

What can patients expect during a cervical spine MRI scan?

You’ll be asked to lie down on the table of the MRI machine, which will move inside the scanner. 

You will hear different noises but you will be given earplugs or headphones to reduce the noise. 

For short periods, you will be asked to remain still and hold your breath. A cervical spine MRI scan can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to perform.

What follow-up is typically necessary after an MRI?

After your cervical spine MRI scan, your healthcare provider will contact you with the results. This can take place over the phone or during a follow-up appointment. 

It is important to ask your healthcare provider to review the results with you in direct layman’s language, fully explaining any technical jargon or terms you may not understand.

How your healthcare provider uses your MRI results to diagnose potential MS

MRI scans have been used to diagnose MS in the upper cervical spine since the late 1980s, and since that time great advancements in MS diagnosis have been made. 

Let’s examine how your healthcare team will use the results from your cervical spine MRI scan to diagnose potential multiple sclerosis.

How will my healthcare team interpret my MRI results?

A radiologist, trained to supervise and interpret radiology scans, will review your images and send a report to the healthcare provider who ordered the exam. 

Your healthcare team will carefully review the images to identify any abnormalities or signs of illness and then compare the results with your medical history and symptoms to make an accurate diagnosis and develop a treatment plan tailored to your needs. 

What findings on a cervical spine MRI are critical indicators of MS?

This is rather technical, but what is known as T2 MRI sequences can highlight areas of demyelination, which happens when the outer layer of the neurons is damaged due to MS activity. T2 sequences can be used to count the total number of MS lesions, which look like bright white spots on T2 sequences.

How does my provider use my MRI results and other clinical findings to diagnose MS?

Diagnosing MS typically involves an evaluation of various factors, including MRI results and clinical findings. 

Typically, your healthcare provider will analyze the MRI images of your brain and spinal cord to look for specific signs of MS, and then assess your symptoms, medical history, and neurological exam results. 

They will look for signs such as vision problems, numbness or weakness in limbs, balance issues, and cognitive changes. 

These findings will help your provider to tailor a treatment plan best suited to you.

How to schedule your MRI appointment with us

Touchstone Medical Imaging offers MRI scans in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, and Texas. 

Reach out to us at Touchstone, and we’ll help you schedule an MRI appointment at an imaging center near you, today.

We’re here to help you get the answers you need.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

An MRI scan uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of the body’s internal structures.

MRIs can detect subtle changes in tissue, helping to identify hallmark signs of MS, like lesions on the brain and spinal cord.

MRI technology can distinguish tissues based on their water content and how they respond to magnetic fields.

The MRI focuses on detecting abnormalities like lesions, or demyelination in the cervical spine, which are common in MS.

Common signs include inflammation, lesions, and areas of demyelination along the cervical spine.

Changes such as lesions in the cervical spine can correlate with physical symptoms like numbness, weakness, or coordination problems.

MRI patients should remove all metal objects, and follow any specific instructions from their healthcare provider regarding eating and drinking.

Your healthcare team will look for specific patterns in the MRI that match MS characteristics, and combine this information with clinical evaluation, to diagnose or to rule out MS.

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