Cervical spine

Cervical spine scans 101

It’s been reported that 15% of people in the United States have had neck pain lasting at least one day over the last three months. Most people ignore their neck pain and hope that it will go away. But sometimes the pain in your neck isn’t simply a muscle cramp; it could be an injury to your cervical spine.

Damage to your cervical spine can happen because of a fall, motor vehicle accident, or a contact sport. It’s essential to assess the extent of any potential injuries to avoid future complications.

The most common way to evaluate an injury to the cervical spine, aside from a physical exam, is through spinal imaging. These internal images can pinpoint injuries in the spine that may not be visible to the naked eye. Different types of imaging scans are used depending on the severity of the damage and/or the suspected diagnosis.

What is the cervical spine?

The cervical spine is comprised of 7 different vertebrae that support the head, known as C1 - C7.

Fluid-filled disks separate the vertebrae, protecting the spine. Through holes in the vertebrae (known as foramina), nerves, blood vessels, and ligaments are able to run throughout the body and into the brain. The health of the cervical spine is important to the mobility of the whole body.

Why do I need a cervical spine scan?

Doctors often perform a physical exam for neck pain to gauge mobility, swelling, and any abnormalities that you can see externally. However, some injuries cannot be assessed by a physical exam alone, and a spinal imaging scan is needed to diagnose the problem accurately.

Common causes of cervical spine pain

Cervical spine pain can be difficult to differentiate from neck muscle pain. Symptoms of an issue in the cervical spine include:

  • Limb weakness
  • Tingling
  • Immobility
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches

These symptoms can occur after an acute injury such as whiplash. Other cervical spine pain may occur as we age.

Common cervical spine pain diagnoses

A few injuries commonly seen in the cervical spine cause neck pain. Common diagnoses include:

  • Pinched nerves
  • Herniated discs
  • Cervical stenosis
  • Spinal fusion
  • Bone spurs

Medical imaging scans for cervical spine pain

To find out more about the structures inside of the neck, doctors may order a cervical spine exam. Different types of imaging scans can produce pictures of the cervical spine. Your doctor may request a specific scan depending on your symptoms and the results of your physical exam.

Cervical spine MRI scans

A cervical MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a non-invasive method of examining the spine. MRI scans use magnetic fields and radio waves to take images of the neck across three planes. The images are combined to show a comprehensive picture of the internal structures of the cervical spine. An abnormal MRI result may be caused by several factors, such as:

  • Herniated discs
  • Spondylosis of the spine
  • Infection of the spine
  • Tumors of the spine

MRIs do not use any radiation. However, they are quite noisy and can take longer than other imaging scans to complete.

Cervical spine CT scans

Your doctor may request a CT scan for the cervical spine if you are experiencing unexplained pain. A CT scan, also known as a computerized tomography scan, is a compilation of X-ray images that creates a detailed view of the affected area. These scans can diagnose:

  • Fractures
  • Tumors
  • Internal bleeding or swelling
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Herniated discs

A CT scan is quicker and less disruptive than an MRI scan, but it uses X-ray technology and exposes you to mild levels of radiation.

Cervical spine X-rays

An X-ray is the simplest form of internal imaging for the cervical spine. An X-ray in the cervical spine is common after an accident where the neck area is injured.

The X-ray can identify any fractures or breaks in the spine that may be contributing to neck pain. They are also a quick and effective way to identify if any bone fragments are pressing against nerves or blood vessels.

How much does a cervical spine scan cost?

There is a large variation in cost for diagnostic imaging scans that assess the cervical spine. Depending on the level of detail required in the scan, the price for cervical spine scans can be higher than other parts of the body.

  • MRI scans can range from $500 to $12,000.
  • CT scans can cost between $1,000 and $7,600.
  • X-ray scans can run from about $260 to $1,000.

These are only standard pricing ranges. The cost of your medical imaging will depend on several factors, including your location and your health insurance coverage.

How long does a cervical spine scan take?

The time it takes for a scan depends on the type of scan being performed. On average, a cervical spine imaging scan will take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.

The time it takes for a scan depends on the type of scan being performed. On average, a cervical spine imaging scan will take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.

If you are looking for a cervical spine scan, explore scan.com’s scan search tool. Finding a cervical spine scan near you from our list of trusted imaging centers is quick and easy.

Resources:
  1. https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Cervical-Spine
  2. https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/neck-pain/all-about-neck-pain
  3. https://www.healthline.com/health/cervical-spine-ct-scan
  4. https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=ug6626

FAQs

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There are 7 vertebrae in the cervical spine.

Cervical spinal stenosis happens when the space within the vertebrae shrinks, putting pressure on the nerves and spinal cord.

Cervical instability happens when the ligaments surrounding cervical spine vertebrae overstretch or loosen. This causes vertebrae to extend beyond their normal range of motion and puts uncomfortable pressure on the spinal cord.