The neck is a sensitive part of the body that can often be irritated by something as simple as sleeping on the wrong side. Some neck injuries can lead to nerve damage and paralysis of limbs, causing extreme discomfort and disability. Mild neck pain often clears up on its own without medical treatment, but if your neck pain lasts for more than a few days and doesn't improve, you should see a doctor.
To assess neck pain, doctors will perform a physical examination and ask questions about your lifestyle and habits to see if they can identify what's causing your pain. Although the physical examination is important, your doctor may also order an imaging scan to help them confirm or rule out a diagnosis.
Keep reading to learn more about the different scans doctors can order to look at the inside of the neck.
Why do I need a neck scan?
Doctors initially evaluate neck injuries using a background questionnaire and a physical exam. When they cannot conclusively diagnose an injury, they will consider ordering an imaging scan to give them a fuller clinical picture.
A neck scan can give the radiologist (a doctor specialized in reading scans) they need to accurately diagnose the cause of your neck pain.
What does a neck scan show?
A neck scan can show all of the structures that make up and surround the neck. This area is home to an array of muscles, bones, blood vessels, and ligaments. While a physical examination can indicate there is damage to a specific part of the neck, a neck imaging scan can show the specific type and location of the damage. Neck scans help doctors see:
- Pinched nerves
- Other soft tissue injuries
Common causes of neck pain
Neck pain is usually caused by bone or cartilage deterioration, repetitive movements, or blunt force trauma.
The most common neck injuries are caused by:
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Contact sports
- Lifting heavy objects
- Repetitive movement or strain
Whiplash can occur when the neck is moved quickly and violently, usually due to a sudden stopping motion (think car accidents, contact sports, or falls).
Common symptoms of neck pain include:
- Limited range of motion
Common neck pain-related diagnoses
Neck pain can be caused by a sudden or severe (acute) injury. It can also result from repetitive movement, which causes strain over time (chronic).
Common neck pain injury diagnoses include:
- Strains and sprains
- Cervical fractures
- Pinched nerves
- Herniated cervical discs
Types of scans for the neck
There are different ways to get images of the inside of your neck. Your doctor may request a specific scan depending on your symptoms and what they see during your physical exam.
The three most commonly ordered imaging scans for the neck are CT scans, MRI scans, and ultrasound scans.
CT scans for the neck
A neck CT scan, also known as a computerized tomography scan, is a series of thinly sliced X-ray images that together create a detailed view of the neck area.
CT scans can diagnose fractures, identify tumors, and locate internal swelling and bleeding areas. A CT scan is less disruptive than an MRI scan, but it does involve some radiation.
MRI for the neck
MRI scans, also known as magnetic resonance imaging, use magnetic fields and radio waves to take images of the neck across three planes. The images are then combined to show a comprehensive picture of the internal structures of the neck. MRI scans of the neck commonly identify infections or tumors within the neck.
An abnormal MRI result may be due any number of conditions--a herniated disk, spondylosis of the spine, a spine infection, a cancer, to name a few. MRIs do not use radiation. However, they take longer to complete than some other imaging scans because they produce more detailed images.
Ultrasound scans of the neck
Neck ultrasounds use sound waves to penetrate the neck. They produce an image by listening to the echo as they bounce off different tissues inside the neck.
Ultrasounds are especially good at picturing nerves, blood vessels, and lymph nodes. If neck pain is being caused by an abnormal growth or a tumor, a neck ultrasound is likely to pick it up.
How much does a neck scan cost?
Diagnostic imaging scans for neck injuries vary in cost depending on the type of scan. Due to the delicate nature of the area, the cost of neck scans can be higher than for other parts of the body.
The average cost for a CT neck scan in the United States is between $1,000 and $7,600. For an MRI, the cost can vary from $500 to $12,000, depending on the detail required by the scan order. Ultrasounds are the more affordable, costing an average of $300 in the United States.
The prices for all diagnostic imaging can vary based on your location and your health insurance coverage.
How long does a neck scan take?
Like cost, the time it takes to get medical imaging of your neck can vary. Ultrasounds usually take 20 to 30 minutes. CT scans can go for 30 to 60 minutes. MRI scans usually take longest, ranging from 60 minutes to two hours.
Find a neck scan near me
If your doctor has ordered a medical imaging test for your neck, explore scan.com’s scan search tool. Finding a neck scan near you from our list of trusted imaging centers is quick and easy.