MRI scan is widely used radiology examination. This imaging technique uses principles of magnetism, radio waves, and a computer to create detailed images of the body structures. Your doctor can use MRI examination to diagnose you or to see how well you have responded to treatment. Generally, doctors use the MRI of the lumbar spine to detect diseases of your spinal cord, peripheral nerves, vertebrae and surrounding structures – ligaments and muscles.

The vertebral column, also known as the backbone or spine, is part of the axial skeleton containing vertebrae separated by intervertebral discs and surrounded by soft tissues, such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The vertebral column houses the spinal canal, a cavity that encloses and protects the spinal cord, from which peripheral nerves come out.

What is the lumbar spine?

The lumbar spine refers to the lower back, where the spine curves inward toward the abdomen. It starts about five or six inches below the shoulder blades, and connects with the thoracic spine at the top and extends downward to the sacral spine. Many patients with back problems are recommended an MRI scan, so the doctor can decide whether surgery or non-surgical treatment is preferred.

What is the cost of a lumbar spine MRI scan?

Spine MRI prices by location and insurance type
Insurance type Clinic MRI price  Hospital MRI price
High-deductible patient $1,200 – $2,400 $2,100 – $8,000
Insured patient (25% copay) $300 – $800 $700 – $2,000
Cash patient $250 – $400 $500 – $2,000

Lumbar spine MRI

Why may I need the MRI of the spine area?

You may need a lumbar spine MRI due to the symptoms such as back pain, discomfort, numbness, tingling and weakness in your arms and legs or even urinary incontinence and others. They can appear in the following forms:

  • Pain, weakness or numbness in the legs, calves or buttocks
  • Frequent cramping in the calves with walking, requiring frequent short rests to walk a distance
  • Pain radiating into one or both thighs and legs, similar to the lay term “sciatica”
  • In very rare cases, loss of motor functioning of the legs, loss of normal bowel or bladder function
  • Pain may improve with bending forward, sitting or lying down

While the MRI scan is a very accurate imaging method to examine the spinal anatomy, it is not able to distinguish between painful and non-painful structures in the spine. It means that you may feel severe back pain, but an MRI scan will show a relatively normal picture of your spine, or in other cases, you may have no pain at all, but the MRI will reveal structural abnormalities. Therefore, the findings on the MRI of the spine must be correlated with the physical examination your doctor will perform.

What is your doctor looking at when checking your MRI of the spine?

  • Spinal alignment
  • Height, hydration, hernia, degeneration, bulges of intervertebral discs
  • Vertebral body configuration
  • Spinal canal size, signs of nerve compression or inflammation
  • Structural abnormalities

How is the MRI of the Lumbar Spine performed?

During the examination, you will be positioned on the moveable table. To maintain the position and to help you to lay still, the radiology technician might use straps and bolsters. If a contrast agent is needed to be used during your MRI examination, a doctor, nurse or radiologist will insert an intravenous catheter into a vein in your hand or arm. You can find more information about how does the MRI contrast agent work here.  

The MRI examination usually takes within 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the length of the spine scanned (only part of the spine or the entire length). In case your doctor decides the contrast agent is needed, more images may be created and it may take 15 to 20 minutes more to perform the MRI scan.

Read more about how to prepare for the MRI examination, and what are the possible risks of this imaging technique.

How to save money on a spine MRI scan cost?

  • Take your doctor referral to the facility that offers you the best price for MRI scan
  • Shop around across 4-10 facilities to find the best deal for spine MRI scan, focus also on free-standing imaging facilities
  • Pay in cash to save 40-80% of the cost (HSA counts)
  • Consider doing this MRI in the large metro area (Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami) that have more competitive rates

Not sure where to start?

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