Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a scan that uses strong magnet and radio waves to see inside your body. It can see your organs, bones and tissue. It creates detailed images of your body. It is a safe and painless way for healthcare providers to get a closer look inside your body. It is used to help diagnose diseases and many other medical conditions.
An MRI is similar to an X-ray (which is used for pictures of your bones). It is similar to a CT scan (also called a CAT scan or computed tomography scan), which is used to create pictures of bones, muscles and organs. It is more like a CT scan than an X-ray. Many people get the two scans confused because the equipment used for each is very similar. Both an MRI and CT scan produce images of your bones, organs, and other internal tissues. Here is how they are different:
- An MRI uses a magnetic field to create an image. This means you aren’t exposed to radiation. No studies have linked MRIs to any harmful health effects. A CT scan uses radiation to create an image. Repeated exposure can be harmful.
- An MRI scan can take longer to perform
- An MRI provides a clearer picture of abnormal tissues. It is a better scan for looking at ligaments and tendons, your spinal cord and other soft tissues. A CT scan can give you a higher-quality picture of bones and is better for diagnosing chest and lung problems as well as detecting some cancers.
There are many reasons your healthcare provider may order an MRI. Generally, an MRI can help your healthcare provider identify what is causing your health issue so that they can diagnose you accurately and prescribe a treatment plan.
Depending on your symptoms, an MRI will scan a specific portion of your body to diagnose:
- Heart damage.
- Lung damage.
- Problems with your eyes or ears.
- Sports injuries.
- Problems with your spine, including disc (rubbery cushions between your backbones) problems or spinal tumors.
- Problems with your veins or arteries.
- Brain abnormalities, such as tumors, and dementia.
- Abdominal/digestive tract problems.
- Bone diseases and conditions.
- Pelvic problems (in women) or prostate problems (in men).
Path to improved health
Your healthcare provider may ask you not to eat or drink anything a few hours before the MRI, depending on what part of your body you are having scanned.
Your healthcare provider also may request that you have an MRI with contrast. This means that a contrast agent (a dye) will be injected into your body just before the scan. The injection of contrast is most often done through an IV (intravenously, through a vein) that is placed in the back of your hand or the inside of your elbow. The contrast will improve the quality of the images. It may provide more detail in some instances.
You cannot wear jewelry or have metal of any kind on your body (such as on your clothes) during the MRI.
MRIs are painless. The only “challenge,” for adults and especially for children, will be lying completely still for the scan. Any movement could result in blurred images, just as they would with a typical camera. The amount of time for the scan will vary, depending on what you are having scanned. Normally, scans last between 15 minutes to 2 hours.
The MRI machine itself looks like a big donut with a table attached to it. You’ll be asked to lie on the table and an MRI technician will help you into a comfortable position and explain what you can expect during the scan. When you’re ready, the table will slide into the doughnut-shaped opening of the machine. Your whole body does not go in the machine, only the half or part that needs to be scanned.
One thing you’ll need to know is that the machine is noisy. It makes a lot of different noises, and some of them are extremely loud. Some patients say it sounds like a sledgehammer. For this reason, you will be offered ear plugs or headphones. You’ll also be able to hear the radiology technician give you instructions or check on you through the headphones.
If you are claustrophobic (frightened of being in small spaces), please get medication from your family healthcare provider and bring it with you, if needed. The MRI department does not provide this medication.
A radiologist (a doctor who specializes in medical imaging) will review the images and send a report to your referring healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will receive a full report following the test and can go over the results with you.
Things to consider
Small children who are incapable are being still for the duration of the scan may require sedation prior to having an MRI. In this case, an anesthesiologist would provide the sedation and stay (in addition to a nurse) to monitor the patient before, during, and after the scan.
If your MRI requires contrast, your radiologist will monitor you for allergies during the procedure. Severe reactions to the contrast agent are rare, but could happen. In those cases, the radiology department is well-trained on how to handle your allergic reaction.
MRI exams are not suitable for everyone. Some implants may not be safe for an MRI exam. If you have any implanted objects or devices, or are pregnant, please ask your family healthcare provider for more information.
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