What to Expect from an MRI

What to Expect from an MRI

So you’ve recently talked with your doctor about a health concern, and they’ve recommended an MRI to understand what’s going on. If your doctor has already ordered an MRI for you, you’re probably looking forward to getting answers about your health, but you may not know quite what to expect from the procedure. Here’s an overview of how to prepare for the MRI, what you’ll experience during the procedure, and steps to take after it’s finished.

Preparation

No special preparation is needed, but if you have any implanted metal like a hip or pacemaker, you’ll want to check with your doctor and the manufacturer to make sure it’s safe for the machine you’ll be using. Because of the magnets, it’s important to take off any metal accessories like a belt, watch, glasses, or jewelry, and remove items containing metal––including keys, coins, credit cards, and your phone––from your pockets. If you’re claustrophobic, ask your doctor to send you to a facility with an open MRI machine. In the past, open MRIs typically could only offer lower resolution results, but the latest technology 1.2 Tesla (the strength of the magnet) machines compare favorably with their standard counterparts.

MRI preparation

Contrast

MRIs can be done with or without contrast. If contrast is used, depending on the procedure a liquid contrast may injected in your arm, or you’ll swallow an oral liquid or pill. As its name suggests, the contrast helps create more contrast in the image, especially around fluid and inflammation, which makes details easier to see. Adding contrast can make the MRI more expensive, but depending on your particular health conditions, it can also offer more accurate, useful results. If you’ve had an allergic reaction to contrast in the past, be sure to tell both your doctor and the technician. Depending on your age and whether you have diabetes, you may need a blood test to make sure your kidneys are working ok, too.

MRI contrast

The scan

An MRI scan uses a magnetized MRI machine to take photographs of the inside of a patient’s body. MRIs don’t use radiation, just radio waves and two strong magnets that line up the body’s water molecules from magnetic north to south.

MRI magnets

The magnets are quickly turned on and off, which makes the molecules alternate between being magnetically “organized” and “disorganized”. The MRI machine looks at these molecular changes and makes a photograph based on how quickly areas change from organized to disorganized. One MRI scan takes anywhere from 50 to 150 images that help doctors spot abnormalities in internal organs, joints, bones, and the spine.

What it feels like

You’ll lie down on your back on the MRI table, which will slide into the plastic tube that contains the magnets. Once you’re inside the tube, you’ll be in a small space, but nothing else will move around or touch you. You’ll just lie in the tube for about 45 minutes while the machine takes photos. You’ll have to stay as still as possible to avoid blurring the images. The machine will be very loud, making a variety of thudding, beeping, and droning noises, as well as a regular high-pitched whir like birds chirping. You can use earplugs to mute the noise, and some places give you headphones to listen to music. While many places offer earplugs, it’s a good idea to bring your own.

Inside MRI

When the scan is finished, the table will move out of the tube. You can sit or stand up, and the technician will come in to answer any questions and show you out. Be sure to ask for a CD copy of your images before you leave. Your results will be electronically sent or faxed to your referring doctor, and you should expect to schedule a follow up appointment with that doctor within the week.

Going forward with your MRI

Now that you have an idea of the MRI process, you can feel confident that you’ve done everything necessary to get ready for the procedure, and relax knowing what to expect at each step.

Article by Julia Kroll

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Comments

  1. Julia, many thanks for sharing this information to help me know what to expect from an MRI. I still need to find a facility to help me experience this procedure, but this post helped to put my mind at ease. The point that you made about contrast options helped me know a lot more about the process. I would prefer to have more contrast in the image so I will be sure to keep researching my options so that my MRI experience is great!

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