What Do the Words on My MRI Mean?

If you are experiencing back, neck or joint pain. A medical provider may recommend you have a magnetic resonance imaging study or MRI. The MRI is a form of imaging that is useful in seeing the body’s internal structure. MRI scans are analyzed by radiologists and other physicians trained to read the imaging. Many of the terms cited on an MRI report can be difficult to make sense of as they are medical terminology not normally used in day to day conversations. For example, an MRI report may say “C6-7 had a disc space desiccation”, or “a broad based disc osteophyte complex” or there is “severe bilateral foraminal stenosis.” These terms may signal significant medical issues that require precise diagnosis and treatment. To understand the difference between medical terminology words on MRI report findings and impressions, you must first understand the anatomy of your spine.

Your back has muscles, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. Muscles act as the source of power for movement. Ligaments are strong, flexible bands that link bones together, and tendons connect muscle to bones and discs. Blood vessels provide nourishment. These parts all work together to help you move. Your backbone consists of 33 vertebrae (bones). There are discs between each of the vertebrae that act like pads or shock absorbers. Intervertebral discs act as primary joints connecting the spine bones together. Each disc is made of an outer band called the annulus fibrosus and a gel like inner substance called the nucleus pulposus.Together, the vertebrae and the disc provide a protective tunnel (the spinal canal) to house the spinal cord and nerves. These nerves run down the center of the vertebrae and exit to various parts of the body. The disc help the spine bend and twist, and support upper body weight and muscle activity.

Commonly Used Medical Spinal Terminology-A Glossary of Terms

Acute – sudden onset.
Ankylosing – some soft tissue in the spine are replaced by bone, fusing together vertebra, leading to achiness, stiffness, and sometimes a stooping posture.
Annular tear – a small tear on the outer layers of the annulus fibrosus.
Annulus fibrosus – Tough, interwoven, outer casing of the disc. Only the outer third is sensitive to pain.
Anterior – the front portion of the body.
Arthritis – inflammation of a joint usually characterized by swelling, pain, and restriction of motion.
Bilateral – both sides.
Bulging disc – a condition in which the nucleus (inner portion) of a spinal disc remains contained within the annulus fibrosus (outer portion).
Bursitis – inflammation of the friction pad between the muscle and bone.
Cervical spine – relating to the part of the neck consisting of seven separate vertebrae.
Chronic – refers to the duration of pain, but not its intensity. Chronic pain means symptoms present for longer than six weeks to 3 months.
Coccyx – region of the spine below the sacrum, also known as the tailbone.
Conservative – refers to non-surgical treatment such as physical therapy, exercise, medications, massages, etc.
Cortical bone – bone tissue which has been depleted of its minerals.
Decompression – procedure to relieve compression on the spinal cord or nerve roots by removing bone or soft tissue.
Degenerative disc disease – a general term for the condition in which a damaged (loss of fluid content, structure, and functional integrity) vertebral disc causes chronic pain, either low back pain (and/or leg pain, sciatica) in the lumbar spine or neck pain (and/or arm pain) in the cervical spine.
Desiccation – the removal of moisture from something, drying out.
Disc – the soft pad positioned in between each of the vertebrae of the spine. The vertebral disc acts as a hinge, spacer, and shock absorber. It is part of the cartilaginous joints that allow movement in the spine.
Discectomy – operation to remove extruded disc material causing nerve compression described as herniated, bulging, ruptured, or extruded.
Disc osteophyte complex – development of osteophytes affecting more than one intervertebral disk or spinal vertebrae.
Disc protrusion – a disease condition which can occur in which the outermost layers of the annulus fibrosus of the intervertebral discs of the spine are intact, but bulge when one or more of the discs are under pressure.
Facet arthropathy – disease or abnormality of the facet joints. Degenerative arthritis which affects the facet joints of the spine.
Facet joints – a set of synovial, plane joints between the articular processes of two adjacent vertebrae. There are two facet joints between the vertebrae of each spinal motion segment. The facet joints and intervertebral disc form a three-joint complex between adjacent vertebrae. The facet joints make your back flexible and enable you to bend and twist. Nerves exit your spinal cord through facet joints on their way to other parts of your body. Healthy facet joints have cartilage, which allows your vertebrae to move smoothly against each other without grinding.
Foramina – open passage, spaces on either side of the vertebrae through which spinal nerves enter and exit the spinal column on the way to other parts of the body. The canals protect the nerve and allow the free flow of information between the brain and the rest of the body.
Foraminal encroachment – degeneration in the spinal column has caused an obstruction of the foramina.
Foraminal narrowing – reduction of the size of the opening in the spinal column through which the spinal nerves exit.
Foraminal stenosis – narrowing of the disc spaces caused by enlargement of a joint (the uncinate process or a hooked shaped projection) in the spinal canal.
Fusion – joining two or more vertebrae together by bone grafting with or without instrumentation so they no longer move independently.
Herniated disc – a condition in which the annulus fibrosus (outer portion) of the vertebral disc is torn, enabling the nucleus (inner portion) to herniate or extrude through the fibers.
Instability – describes excessive movement or excessive pain from one vertebra moving on another.
Kyphosis – convex angulation or curvature of the spine when viewed from the side. The opposite of lordosis.
Lamina – part of the back of the vertebra, which with two pedicles, completes the arch through which the spinal nerves run through.
Laminectomy – refers to the operation in which the whole or part of the lamina is removed to relieve pressure on the underlying nerves or spinal cord.
Lateral– away from the midline. Opposite of medial.
Ligaments – strong, flexible, slightly elastic bands or sheets holding bones in place and stabilizing joints. The may be strained or torn which may be painful as they contain many sensory nerve endings.
Lordosis – concave curvature or angulation of the spine when viewed from the side.The opposite of kyphosis.
Lumbar – relating to the lower part of the back consisting of 5 bones.
Lumbago – pain in the lumbar spine.
Osteophyte – a bony outgrowth associated with the degeneration of cartilage at joints, causing limitations in joint motion and often seen in conditions such as arthritis.
Osteoporosis – literally means porous bone. Medical condition when bone density and bone quality decreases and the body stops producing as much bone as it did before. This affects the structure and strength of bones and fractures are more likely especially in the spine, hips, and wrists. The bones becomes brittle, weak, and fragile from loss of tissue, typically from hormone changes, or deficiency in calcium or vitamin D.
Osteopenia – a condition when the body does not make new bone as quickly and it reabsorbs old bone. In between having healthy bones and having osteoporosis. Your bones are weaker than normal, but not so far gone that they break easily.
Radiculopathy – also called nerve root impingement, a range of symptoms produced by pinching of a nerve root in the spinal column. A common cause is narrowing of the space where nerve roots exit the spine, which can be a result of bone spurs, stenosis, herniations, or other conditions.
Retrolisthesis – the vertebra has slipped backwards. Posterior displacement of one vertebral body with respect to the subjacent vertebra to a degree less than luxation(dislocation).
Sciatica – refers to pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve, which branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg. Typically, sciatica affects only one side of your body.
Spinal column – the spine, the backbone.
Spinal cord – the main nerve trunk which runs from the base of the skull to the second vertebra inside the spinal canal. Injury results in paralysis and loss of sensation below the injury.
Spinal stenosis – a condition in which the spinal canal starts to narrow. The tightness can pinch the spinal cord or nerves around it, causing pain, tingling, or numbness in your legs, arms or torso.
Spondylosis – a degenerative process, also referred to as spinal osteoarthritis. Loss of normal spinal structure and function affecting vertebral and facet joints that gradually develop stiffening with the biochemical changes of aging.
Spondylolisthesis – condition in which one vertebra body is slipped out of place forward onto the bone directly below it. Displacement of one vertebra compared to another. There are different types including degenerative, isthmic, dysplastic, traumatic, and pathologic.
Thoracic – part of the spine related to the rib cage. There are 12 thoracic vertebra and which do not move, but are subject to postural forces. The area between your neck and abdomen.
Unilateral – on one side only
Vertebral compression fracture – a strong compression. A collapse of a vertebra, a break in bone. It may be due to trauma or due to weakening of the vertebra. The most common fracture in patients with osteoporosis.

Medical terminology is the standard means of communication within the healthcare industry. It is often difficult to understand for patients. At first glance, it can seem like a foreign language. A healthcare provider should explain, repeat, and clarify the information. Do not be afraid to ask if you do not understand as understanding your medical problems will make it easier to manage them effectively.

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