John D. Spears, D.O.

When spine surgery is an option,
The Missouri Spine Institute is the best option you have.

Spine Imaging: What’s the Difference between X-Ray and MRI?

As you work with your doctor to diagnose the cause of your pain, the term “spine imaging” is likely to surface. If you are new to the process, you might be wondering what happens during this type of procedure and how you can prepare.


An x-ray uses electromagnetic radiation to take pictures of your body. This scan will help your doctor determine the health of the bones in your neck and back. Any degenerative changes (arthritis), instability or fractures will be visible. There are slight risks associated with x-rays and you should tell your doctor if you are pregnant or if you have a history of radiation exposure.


An MRI uses radio waves and strong magnets to create detailed images of your spine and surrounding tissues. This type of scan will help the doctor to see if your spinal cord is compressed or if you have tumors, cysts or extra fluid. No radiation is involved in an MRI, however the magnetic field can cause problems with some medical devices. Tell your doctor if you have any devices or metal in your body or if you are pregnant.

CT Scan

A CT scan uses x-rays to take a cross-sectional picture of your body. This scan is more detailed than a basic x-ray and helps your doctor locate fractures and medical devices that have been placed. This information can be helpful in preparation for surgery as well as to monitor the progress of fusions. In the age of the MRI it is much less common to order a CT scan which has a higher dose of radiation.

CT Myelogram

A CT myelogram is a CT scan with the addition of a contrast dye. Before the scan, the radiologist will inject the dye into your spine. During the scan, problems can be detected in your spinal cord, nerve roots and other tissues. A CT myelogram is a good option for someone who cannot undergo an MRI, and can also be used to visualize nerves and hardware post-surgery.


A discogram uses x-rays and a contrast dye to examine the intervertebral discs of your spine. It is an older test that is not frequently performed anymore. Before the scan, the contrast dye is injected into the injured disc or series of discs, making them more visible than they would be with a basic x-ray or CT myelogram. Here, the doctor can see if you have tears or a rupture in the disc that may be causing your pain. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to prepare for the procedure. Tell your doctor about any medicines you take. You will also need to arrange for someone to drive you home when it’s over.

Do you have questions about an upcoming scan? Contact us and we will be happy to assist.