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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a noninvasive medical test that helps physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions.
MR imaging uses a powerful magnetic field, radio frequency pulses and a computer to produce detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and virtually all other internal body structures. The images can then be examined on a computer monitor, printed or copied to CD. MRI does not use ionizing radiation (x-rays).
Detailed MR images allow physicians to better evaluate various parts of the body and certain diseases that may not be assessed adequately with other imaging methods such as x-ray, ultrasound or computed tomography (also called CT or CAT scanning).
Do you have questions about MRI of the body?
We have provided the answers to some of the most common and frequently asked questions.
MR imaging of the body is performed to evaluate:
Physicians use the MR examination to help diagnose or monitor treatment for conditions such as:
You may be asked to wear a gown during the exam or you may be allowed to wear your own clothing if it is loose-fitting and has no metal fasteners.
Guidelines about eating and drinking before an MRI exam vary with the specific exam and also with the facility. For some types of exams, you will be asked to fast for 8-12 hours. Unless you are told otherwise, you may follow your regular daily routine and take medications as usual.
Some MRI examinations may require the patient to swallow contrast material or receive an injection of contrast into the bloodstream. The radiologist or technologist may ask if you have allergies of any kind, such as allergy to iodine or x-ray contrast material, drugs, food, the environment, or asthma. However, the contrast material used for an MRI exam, called gadolinium, does not contain iodine and is less likely to cause side effects or an allergic reaction.
The radiologist should also know if you have any serious health problems or if you have recently had surgery. Some conditions, such as severe kidney disease may prevent you from being given contrast material for an MRI.
Women should always inform their physician or technologist if there is any possibility that they are pregnant. MRI has been used for scanning patients since the 1980’s with no reports of any ill effects on pregnant women or their babies. However, because the baby will be in a strong magnetic field, pregnant women should not have this exam unless the potential benefit from the MRI is assumed to outweigh the potential risks.
If you have claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) or anxiety, you may want to ask your physician for a prescription for a mild sedative.
Jewelry and other accessories should be left at home if possible, or removed prior to the MRI scan. Because they can interfere with the magnetic field of the MRI unit, metal and electronic objects are not allowed in the exam room.
These items include:
In most cases, an MRI exam is safe for patients with metal implants, except for a few types. People with the following implants cannot be scanned and should not enter the MRI scanning area unless explicitly instructed to do so by a radiologist or technologist who is aware of the presence of any of the following:
You should tell the technologist if you have any medical or electronic devices in your body, because they may interfere with the exam or potentially pose a risk, depending on their nature and the strength of the MRI magnet. Examples include, but are not limited to:
In general, metal objects used in orthopedic surgery pose no risk during MRI. However, a recently placed artificial joint may require the use of another imaging procedure. If there is any question of their presence, an x-ray may be taken to detect the presence and identify of any metal objects.
Patients who might have metal objects in certain parts of their bodies may also require an x-ray prior to an MRI. Dyes used in tattoos may contain iron and could heat up during MRI, but this is rarely a problem. Tooth fillings and braces usually are not affected by the magnetic field but they may distort images of the facial area or brain, so the radiologist should be aware of them.
The traditional MRI unit is a large cylinder-shaped tube surrounded by a circular magnet. You will lie on a movable examination table that slides into the center of the magnet.
Some MRI units, called short-bore systems, are designed so that the magnet does not completely surround you; others are open on the sides (“low-strength” open MRI). These units are especially helpful for examining patients who are fearful of being in a closed space and for those who are very obese.
Newer open MRI units may provide high quality images for many types of exams; however, open MRI units with older magnets may not provide this same quality. Certain types of exams cannot be performed using open MRI. For more information, consult your doctor.
The computer workstation that processes the imaging information is located in a separate room than the scanner.
Unlike conventional x-ray examinations and computed tomography (CT) scans, MRI does not depend on ionizing radiation. Instead, while in the magnet, radio waves redirect the axes of spinning protons, which are the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, in a strong magnetic field.
The magnetic field is produced by passing an electric current through wire coils in most MRI units. Other coils, located in the machine and in some cases, placed around the part of the body being imaged, send and receive radio waves, producing signals that are detected by the coils.
A computer then processes the signals and generates a series of images each of which shows a thin slice of the body. The images can then be studied from different angles by the interpreting physician.
Overall, the differentiation of abnormal (diseased) tissue from normal tissues is often better with MRI than with other imaging modalities such as x-ray, CT and ultrasound.
MRI examinations may be performed on outpatients or inpatients.
You will be positioned on the movable examination table. Straps and bolsters may be used to help you stay still and maintain the correct position during imaging.
Small devices that contain coils capable of sending and receiving radio waves may be placed around or adjacent to the area of the body being studied.
If a contrast material will be used in the MRI exam, a nurse or technologist will insert an intravenous (IV) line into a vein in your hand or arm. A saline solution may be used. The solution will drip through the IV to prevent blockage of the IV line until the contrast material is injected.
You will be moved into the magnet of the MRI unit and the radiologist and technologist will leave the room while the MRI examination is performed.
If a contrast material is used during the examination, it will be injected into the intravenous line (IV) after an initial series of scans. Additional series of images will be taken during or following the injection.
When the examination is completed, you may be asked to wait until the technologist or radiologist checks the images in case additional images are needed.
Your intravenous line will be removed.
MRI exams generally include multiple runs (sequences), some of which may last several minutes. Depending on the type of exam and the equipment used, the entire exam is usually completed in 15 to 45 minutes.