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MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

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If you experience a brain, muscle, or spine injury or condition, your doctor may recommend an MRI exam, which stands for magnetic resonance imaging. Unlike some other imaging exams, MRI does not use radiation. Instead, it uses radiofrequency waves and powerful magnets to produce images of the soft tissue structures in your body.

An MRI is effective at diagnosing injuries and conditions that affect the:

  • Joints
  • Major blood vessels
  • Muscles
  • Prostate
  • Spine
  • Tendons

You will need a written referral from your physician to receive an MRI exam.

MRI to diagnose and monitor health conditions

Your doctor may recommend an MRI scan to diagnose and monitor the treatment of:

  • Tumors
  • Heart problems
  • Liver diseases
  • Pelvic pain

Please review risks and limitations (below), and discuss with your doctor, to determine if MRI is right for you.

How MRI scans work

MRI exams use a magnetic field, radiofrequency signals, and a computer to create images of your body. These images can be studied from different angles, which gives your radiologist a clearer picture of your soft tissues than images produced by an X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, or ultrasound.

Breast MRI

Breast MRIs are performed to obtain highly detailed images of the breast tissue. Your doctor may recommend a breast MRI:

  • To supplement a mammogram or breast ultrasound if you are at high risk for breast cancer
  • To determine if a silicone breast implant has ruptured

MRI benefits

MRI exams are valuable at diagnosing and evaluating medical conditions affecting the body's soft tissue. They are also a painless, noninvasive way to detect heart and blood vessel problems.

MRI risks and limitations

MRIs pose almost no risk when you follow your team's instructions.

Please note the following special cases:

Implanted devices: Implanted metal devices could malfunction or cause issues during the exam, so be sure to alert your physician if you have any of these devices. If you are not sure, you may be asked to undergo an X-ray first to detect these objects.

Allergy: There is also a small risk you may be allergic to the contrast material, though this is uncommon.

Anxiety: If you are anxious, easily confused, or in severe pain, you may find it difficult to lie still enough for the MRI to get accurate images.

Pregnancy: While there is no evidence an MRI would be harmful to a fetus, your physician may consult with a radiologist prior to your MRI exam.

Our Team

Our highly trained team of radiologists and technologists specialize in MRI exams. We are here to answer your questions and help you have the best possible experience.

How to prepare for an MRI exam

Your nurse or doctor will give you detailed instructions about how to prepare for your MRI exam. On the day of your exam, you will meet a MRI technologist who will conduct a safety interview with you. In general, you can expect to:

  • Wear a gown during the exam if your clothes contain metal
  • Not eat or drink for 4 hours (for some MRI exams)
  • Possibly receive an injection or drink contrast material. Contrast material is used to improve the accuracy of MRI studies.
  • Leave jewelry, watches, hairpins, clothing with metal zippers, and other metal accessories at home
  • Remove dentures, body piercings, eyeglasses, and other metal objects before the exam

Prior to your exam, you should alert your nurse or doctor if you have:

  • Any allergies to medications or contrast material
  • Any serious health problems
  • Recently had surgery
  • Any chance of being pregnant
  • Claustrophobia (fear of small, enclosed spaces)
  • Any implanted electronic or metal devices in your body, such as:
    • Implanted drug infusion ports
    • Cardiac pacemaker
    • Artificial limbs or metallic joint prostheses
    • Implanted nerve stimulators
    • Metal pins, screws, plants, stents, or surgical staples
    • Shrapnel, screws, plants, or other metallic objects
  • Any tattoos, which may contain iron and could heat up during the MRI (though this is rare)
  • Tooth fillings or braces, which aren't affected by the exam, but may distort images of the facial area or brain

What to expect during an MRI

MRI exams last between 30 and 60 minutes and sometimes longer depending on the part of your body being scanned.

You will be asked to lie on a moveable exam table. Your technologist will position you safely and comfortably in the proper position. Small devices (“coils”) that send and receive radio waves may be placed around the part of your body being studied. For a breast MRI, you will be asked to lie face down on the MRI table. A technologist will position your breast for the procedure.

If your exam requires contrast material (substances that help distinguish selected areas of the body) your technologist will insert an IV into your hand or arm. In rare cases, you will need to drink the contrast material.

During the study, you will hear loud banging and clicking noises from the MRI scanner. These noises are normal and you will be given the option to wear earplugs or special headphones.

You can resume your normal activities immediately after the exam.

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