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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body. In many cases, MRI gives different information about structures in the body than can be seen with an X-ray, ultrasound, or computed tomography (CT) scan. MRI also may show problems that cannot be seen with other imaging methods.
For an MRI test, the area of the body being studied is placed inside a special machine that contains a strong magnet. Pictures from an MRI scan are digital images that can be saved and stored on a computer for more study. The images also can be reviewed remotely, such as in a clinic or an operating room. In some cases, contrast material may be used during the MRI scan to show certain structures more clearly.
You may be able to have an MRI with an open machine that doesn't enclose your entire body. But open MRI machines aren't available everywhere. The pictures from an open MRI may not be as good as those from a standard MRI machine.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is done for many reasons. It is used to find problems such as tumors, bleeding, injury, blood vessel diseases, or infection. MRI also may be done to provide more information about a problem seen on an X-ray, ultrasound scan, or CT scan. Contrast material may be used during MRI to show abnormal tissue more clearly. An MRI scan can be done for the:
Before your MRI test, tell your doctor and the MRI technologist if you:
You may need to arrange for someone to drive you home after the test, if you are given a medicine (sedative) to help you relax.
For an MRI of the abdomen or pelvis, you may be asked to not eat or drink for several hours before the test.
You may need to sign a consent form that says you understand the risks of the test and agree to have it done.
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form( What is a PDF document? ).
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test is usually done by an MRI technologist. The pictures are usually interpreted by a radiologist. But some other types of doctors can also interpret an MRI scan.
You will need to remove all metal objects (such as hearing aids, dentures, jewelry, watches, and hairpins) from your body because these objects may be attracted to the powerful magnet used for the test.
You will need to take off all or most of your clothes, depending on which area is examined (you may be allowed to keep on your underwear if it is not in the way). You will be given a gown to use during the test. If you are allowed to keep some of your clothes on, you should empty your pockets of any coins and cards (such as credit cards or ATM cards) with scanner strips on them because the MRI magnet may erase the information on the cards.
During the test, you usually lie on your back on a table that is part of the MRI scanner. Your head, chest, and arms may be held with straps to help you remain still. The table will slide into the space that contains the magnet. A device called a coil may be placed over or wrapped around the area to be scanned. A special belt strap may be used to sense your breathing or heartbeat. This triggers the machine to take the scan at the right time.
Some people feel nervous (claustrophobic) inside the MRI magnet. If this keeps you from lying still, you can be given a medicine (sedative) to help you relax. Some MRI machines (called open MRI) are now made so that the magnet does not enclose your entire body. Open MRI machines may be helpful if you are claustrophobic, but they are not available everywhere. The pictures from an open MRI may not be as good as those from a standard MRI machine.
Inside the scanner you will hear a fan and feel air moving. You may also hear tapping or snapping noises as the MRI scans are taken. You may be given earplugs or headphones with music to reduce the noise. It is very important to hold completely still while the scan is being done. You may be asked to hold your breath for short periods of time.
During the test, you may be alone in the scanner room. But the technologist will watch you through a window. You will be able to talk with the technologist through a two-way intercom.
If contrast material is needed, the technologist will put it in an intravenous (IV) line in your arm. The material may be given over 1 to 2 minutes. Then more MRI scans are done.
An MRI test usually takes 30 to 60 minutes but can take as long as 2 hours.
You will not have pain from the magnetic field or radio waves used for the MRI test. The table you lie on may feel hard, and the room may be cool. You may be tired or sore from lying in one position for a long time.
If a contrast material is used, you may feel some coolness when it is put into your IV.
In rare cases, you may feel:
There are no known harmful effects from the strong magnetic field used for MRI. But the magnet is very powerful. The magnet may affect pacemakers, artificial limbs, and other medical devices that contain iron. The magnet will stop a watch that is close to the magnet. Any loose metal object has the risk of causing damage or injury if it gets pulled toward the strong magnet.
Metal parts in the eyes can damage the retina. If you may have metal fragments in the eye, an X-ray of the eyes may be done before the MRI. If metal is found, the MRI will not be done.
Iron pigments in tattoos or tattooed eyeliner can cause skin or eye irritation.
An MRI can cause a burn with some medicine patches. Be sure to tell your health professional if you are wearing a patch.
There is a slight risk of an allergic reaction if contrast material is used during the MRI. But most reactions are mild and can be treated using medicine. There also is a slight risk of an infection at the IV site.
A dye (contrast material) that contains gadolinium may be used in this test. Be sure to tell your doctor if:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has safety warnings about gadolinium. But for most people, the benefit of its use in this test outweighs the risk.
If you breastfeed and are concerned about whether the dye used in this test is safe, talk to your doctor. Most experts believe that very little dye passes into breast milk and even less is passed on to the baby. But if you prefer, you can store some of your breast milk ahead of time and use it for a day or two after the test.
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body.
The radiologist may discuss initial results of the MRI with you right after the test. Complete results are usually ready for your doctor in 1 to 2 days.
An MRI can sometimes find a problem in a tissue or organ even when the size and shape of the tissue or organ looks normal.
The organs, blood vessels, bones, and joints are normal in size, shape, appearance, and location.
No abnormal growths, such as tumors, are present.
No bleeding, abnormal fluid, blockage in the flow of blood, or bulges in the blood vessels ( aneurysms) are present.
No signs of inflammation or infection are present.
An organ is too large, too small, damaged, or absent.
Abnormal growths (such as tumors) are present.
Abnormal fluid from a cause such as bleeding or an infection is present. Fluid is found around the lungs or heart. Fluid is found around the liver, bowel, or other organ in the abdomen.
A blood vessel is narrowed or blocked. An aneurysm is present.
Blockage in the gallbladder bile ducts or in the tubes ( ureters) that lead out of the kidneys is present.
Damage to joints, ligaments, or cartilage is seen. Bones are broken or show infection or disease.
Problems of the nervous system are present, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or herniated disc.
Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:
Many modern medical devices that do not use electronics—such as heart valves, stents, or clips—can be safely placed in most MRI machines. But some newer MRI machines have stronger magnets. The safety of MRI scans with these stronger MRI magnets in people with medical devices is not known.
MRI can be used to check different parts of the body, such as the head, belly, breast, spine, shoulder, and knee.
Other Works ConsultedChernecky CC, Berger BJ (2013). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 6th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineHoward B. Schaff, MD - Diagnostic Radiology
Current as ofJune 26, 2018
Current as of: June 26, 2018
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Howard B. Schaff, MD - Diagnostic Radiology
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