MRI Scan for Car Accidents & Personal Injury

This article contains information about a MRI scan for car accidents & personal injury. You may have felt lucky surviving an accident with no injuries. But the onset of pain in your neck and back might be making you doubt your luck now. The injuries from the accident, which were not apparent at first, are the cause of the pain. Your doctor may request for an MRI scan to ascertain the type of injury, which helps in planning your treatment. But what exactly is an MRI scan? Here’s everything you need to know about MRI. 

picture of closed MRI machine
Closed MRI machine

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What is an MRI Scan?

How Does an MRI Work?

What Will I Experience During MRI Scanning?

Advantages and Disadvantages of MRI Scanning

Risks of MRI Scanning to your Health

Uses of MRI in Neck and Back Pain

Symptoms of Neck and Back Injury

Types of Neck and Back Injuries Detectable by MRI

What is an MRI Scan?

As a personal injury lawyer and Houston Construction Accident Lawyer, our personal injury firm represents injury victims who undergo medical testing such as an MRI. MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging which is an imaging diagnostic tool that produces detailed images of the inside of the body using strong magnetic fields and radio waves. It consists of two parts:

  • MRI scanner
  • Computer

The MRI scanner is a large cylinder-shaped machine containing a powerful doughnut-shaped magnet. And powerful in this case refers to a tremendous magnetic strength which is as high as 20,000 gauss. In case you are wondering how high the figure is, compare it to a standard refrigerator magnet which has a strength of 10 gauss. But don’t worry, the powerful magnet is not harmful to your body. It allows the visualization of organs that are hard to see with imaging techniques like X-ray, CT scan, and Ultrasound.

A computer receives signals from the MRI scanner and interprets them to generate 3D images of the inside of your body. A radiographer, a professional trained to carry out imaging procedures, does the MRI scanning.

While MRIs are best suited for imaging soft tissues, virtually any part can be imaged using this tool. It can be used to image:

  • Brain and spinal cord
  • Bones and joints
  • Heart and blood vessels
  • Breast
  • Internal organs like the spleen, liver, kidneys, and others

How Does an MRI Work?

You are probably wondering how a magnet will interact with your body while you are not magnetic. Actually, you are magnetic. Water molecules make up the majority of your body. These molecules consist of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Hydrogen atoms contain smaller particles called protons at their center, which are essentially tiny magnets as they are highly sensitive to magnetic fields.

Normally, the protons are randomly arranged in your body. However, that changes when you lie in the powerful magnet of the MRI scanner. The protons will line up in the same direction throughout your body.

During the imaging, short bursts of radio waves are sent to the area of your body being imaged. The radio waves knock the protons out of alignment. The protons realign again after the radio waves are turned off. The speed of realignment of the protons depends on the type of tissue in the body, which helps distinguish the tissue types.

Proton realignment sends out radio signals which provide the exact information about their location in the body. A receiver picks up the radio signals from the millions of protons. The computer combines these signals to produce a detailed 3D image of the inside of your body.

What Will I Experience During MRI Scanning?

If you are feeling a bit nervous about the procedure, it would probably help to know what to expect.

It’s a non-invasive procedure that is entirely painless.You may feel some discomfort in case you have claustrophobia. A nurse or radiographer will give you some medications under the direction of a doctor to help you stay calm during the procedure.

A contrast agent may be used to help visualize the tissues in your body better. The administration of the agent will require the placement of an IV line in your hand or arm. You will have to put up with the prick of the needle and some pain at the injection site. Additionally, you may feel a cooling sensation at the injection site and throughout the body.

The MRI Procedure

A trained radiographer will start by preparing you for the scanning. You may be requested to change into a hospital gown because of the possibility of magnetic objects on your clothes that may alter the scanning. In case you don’t change into the gown, you will be asked to get rid of any magnetic thing that you may have, including:

  • Jewelry, credit cards, watches, and hearing aids
  • Metal zippers, pins, hairpins, and any similar metallic objects
  • Pens, pocket knives, and eyeglasses
  • Removable dental work

Additionally, the radiographer will ask if you have any implants. Inform the radiographer in case you have any of the following implants:

  • Artificial heart valves
  • Implanted electronic devices
  • Implanted drug infusion pumps
  • Metallic joint replacements
  • Artificial limbs
  • Implanted nerve stimulators
  • Surgical staples, metal screws, and plates

An X-ray may be needed in case you are not sure about the location of the implant. In some situations, you may have to use another imaging modality due to the potential damage. The strong magnetic field can damage defibrillators, cardiac pacemakers, and ear implants, and therefore you may have to use a different diagnostic tool.

In the preparation, also inform the radiographer in case you have any of the following:

  • Claustrophobia
  • Allergies, for instance, hay fever, allergic asthma, and food or drug allergies
  • Pregnant
  • Kidney disease or sickle cell anemia

Once the preparation is complete, you will lie on a flat bed that slides into the MRI scanner. For the scanning of the neck and back, you will be moved into the machine head first. You can talk to the radiographer throughout the procedure through an intercom. A television monitor in the adjacent room allows the radiographer to see you throughout the procedure.

technician watches patient in MRI
technician watches patient in MRI

The radiographer will leave the MRI scanner room before the MRI scanner is turned on. They will be in the adjacent room with the computer as the scanning starts.

Expect to hear loud tapping noises during the scanning. The sound is produced by the electric current in the scanner coils as they are turned on and off. But don’t worry about the noise as you will be given earplugs or headphones. If it’s a newer MRI machine, there will be music, air conditioning, and lights.

It is important to keep still during the procedure to avoid distortion of the images. The radiographer will take between 2 and 6 sequences, with each sequence lasting for about 15 minutes. Hundreds of images are taken during each sequence which are combined to produce images. You don’t have to worry about having to stay still for the entire procedure, as you can take breaks between sequences.

After the procedure, you can go home. In case a contrast agent was used, the radiographer may monitor you for a short while before you can go home.

MRI Scan Interpretation

The MRI scans are interpreted by a radiologist who is trained to supervise and interpret radiological exams. They will analyze the MRI images and write an official report. Afterward, the radiologist will send the report to your doctor.

Advantages and Disadvantages of MRI Scanning

You may need to know the following pros and cons of MRI scanning before you undergo the procedure.

Advantages of MRI

  • Non-invasive and painless
  • It doesn’t use ionizing radiation
  • Very clear, detailed images of soft tissues
  • Can take many images in almost any direction and orientation
  • The MRI contrast agent is less likely to result in an allergic reaction, unlike those used in X-rays and CT scans
  • It covers large portions of the body, unlike ultrasound scanning

Disadvantages of MRI Scanning

  • It is expensive ($1000- $1500)
  • The strong magnet affects metal implants
  • It can be uncomfortable in case you are claustrophobic
  • There is a slim chance of an allergic reaction to the contrast

Risks of MRI Scanning to your Health

MRI is one of the safest diagnostic tools. It doesn’t use ionizing radiation, unlike CT scans and X-rays. However, you may need to understand that it comes with some slight risk in the following situations.

One, it can damage implants, as mentioned earlier. Communicate clearly in case you have any implants in your body before the procedure. You may need to opt for a different tool like CT scanning if you have implants whose damage may be potentially dangerous, for instance, a cardiac pacemaker.

Secondly, the use of a contrasting agent may cause you problems in case you have kidney disease or sickle cell anemia. Inform your doctor and radiographer if you have any of the above conditions.

Thirdly, you may want to avoid MRI scanning in case you are pregnant. Although it has not been clearly established, the MRI scanner is not safe for the baby growing in your womb. If you are not sure about your pregnancy status, you may need to do a pregnancy test before the procedure just to be sure.

Finally, the MRI scanner is a cylinder that may feel like a confined space for those with claustrophobia or other anxiety disorders. There are sedatives available to help you keep calm during the procedure.

Uses of MRI in Neck and Back Pain

An MRI scan has three roles in neck and back pain after a car accident. Your doctor may order an MRI for any of the following reasons:

  • Detect injuries
  • Plan treatment
  • Assess the effectiveness of previous treatment

Symptoms of Neck and Back Injury

Injury to your neck or back can present with a variety of symptoms. Of course, pain is the commonest. It could be in your neck, lower back,  upper back, or generalized throughout your back. The pain may range from mild levels that respond well to standard pain killers to severe debilitating pain that may require strong opioid medications like morphine.

Other symptoms that you may feel soon after a car accident that point towards neck and back injury include:

  • Inability to move your fingers or toes
  • Tingling or burning sensations or numbness in your arms or legs
  • Headache
  • Inability to control your bowel or bladder
  • Muscle spasms
  • Changes in your sexual function

Later on, which could be days, weeks, or even months; you can develop some of the following symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Weakness in your hands or legs
  • Tingling or burning sensation or numbness

Types of Neck and Back Injuries Detectable by MRI

In most cases, pain in the neck and back is due to injuries to soft tissues. That makes an MRI scan the best imaging tool for the detection of these injuries. But that does not mean that it won’t detect injuries in the bones. In fact,  it is the best tool for the detection of occult fractures,  which are small fractures that can be missed when other modalities like CT scanning or X-ray are used.

Common injuries that cause neck and back pain and are detectable by MRI scanning include:

  • Disc herniation
  • Sprains and strains
  • Vertebral fractures
  • Spinal stenosis

Disc Herniation

Your vertebral column has cushions between vertebral bones called vertebral discs. These discs absorb shock and prevent friction. When excessive force is applied on them, for instance, in a car accident, compression may result in damage that causes displacement and bulging.

There are various degrees of damage to these discs, which include:

  • Bulging-a smaller portion of the disc pushes outward
  • Herniation- soft center of the disc pushes through cracks in the cover
  • Protrusion- caused by more force which results in more severe herniation
  • Extrusion- a majority of the contents have been pushed out

Displaced parts of the disc compress nerves and result in irritation that is felt as pain. The worse the degree of damage, the more the pain you will feel.

An MRI scan can reveal the injury to the vertebral disc and additionally show the degree of damage. It can also prove causation, for instance, show that the pain you are experiencing is due to disc damage from the accident and not disc degeneration. Such information could be critical when fighting for compensation if the accident was someone else’s fault.

Sprains and Strains

Injury to the tendons and ligaments that support your neck and back vertebral column can also result in pain. It is in most cases due to sprains and strains as the tendons or ligaments are stretched beyond normal limits during the accident.

Such damage may be hard to pick on any other imaging modality.  However, an MRI scan can determine where exactly the injury is and rule out other potentially serious causes of your neck and back pain.

Whiplash is one such soft tissue injury. It results from the forceful, rapid back and forth neck movement, which is similar to the cracking of a whip, hence its name. It is among the commonest causes of neck pain after a car accident.

Vertebral Fractures

Fractures of the vertebral bones can result in severe damage to the spinal cord. However, minor fractures may often present without any significant symptoms apart from pain. It may be challenging to pick up these minor fractures using other imaging modalities. An MRI is a handy tool when it comes to such small and occult fractures.

Spinal Stenosis

Untreated injuries can result in the narrowing of the channel through which the spinal cord passes. This narrowing results in compression of the spinal cord and nerves leaving the spinal cord. It will cause neck and back pain besides developing issues like loss of bowel and bladder control, weakness, and numbness in the hands or legs.

Doing an MRI scan can help detect the spinal stenosis. It will clearly show where the narrowing is and the nerves affected.

Conclusion

Magnetic Resonance Imaging is one of the best diagnostic tools when you have neck and back pain after a car accident. It can easily pick soft tissue injuries and occult fractures which are causing the pain. Besides being a non-invasive and painless procedure, it doesn’t use ionizing radiation like a CT scan or X-ray. All the best as you see a permanent solution to your neck and back pain.

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