MRI

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Overview

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a medical imaging technique that uses a magnetic field and computer-generated radio waves to create detailed images of the organs and tissues in your body. 

 

When you lie inside an MRI machine, the magnetic field temporarily realigns water molecules in your body. Radio waves cause these aligned atoms to produce faint signals, which are used to create cross-sectional MRI images — like slices in a loaf of bread.

The MRI machine can also produce 3D images that can be viewed from different angles.


Why it's done

MRI is a noninvasive way for your doctor to examine your organs, tissues and skeletal system. It produces high-resolution images of the inside of the body that help diagnose a variety of problems. 

MRI of the brain and spinal cord

MRI is the most frequently used imaging test of the brain and spinal cord. It's often performed to help diagnose:

  • Aneurysms of cerebral vessels
  • Disorders of the eye and inner ear
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Spinal cord disorders
  • Stroke
  • Tumors
  • Brain injury from trauma

A special type of MRI is the functional MRI of the brain (fMRI). It produces images of blood flow to certain areas of the brain. It can be used to examine the brain's anatomy and determine which parts of the brain are handling critical functions.

This helps identify important language and movement control areas in the brains of people being considered for brain surgery. Functional MRI can also be used to assess damage from a head injury or from disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

MRI of bones and joints

MRI can help evaluate:

  • Joint abnormalities caused by traumatic or repetitive injuries, such as torn cartilage or ligaments
  • Disk abnormalities in the spine
  • Bone infections
  • Tumors of the bones and soft tissue 

Risks

 Because MRI uses powerful magnets, the presence of metal in your body can be a safety hazard if attracted to the magnet. Even if not attracted to the magnet, metal objects can distort the MRI image. Before having an MRI, you'll likely complete a questionnaire that includes whether you have metal or electronic devices in your body.

Unless the device you have is certified as MRI safe, you might not be a candidate for an MRI. 

If you have tattoos or permanent makeup, ask your doctor whether they might affect your MRI. Some of the darker inks contain metal.

Before you schedule an MRI, tell your doctor if you think you're pregnant. The effects of magnetic fields on fetuses aren't well understood. Your doctor might recommend an alternative exam or postponing the MRI. Also tell your doctor if you're breast-feeding, especially if you're to receive contrast material during the procedure.

It's also important to discuss kidney or liver problems with your doctor and the technologist, because problems with these organs might limit the use of injected contrast agents during your scan

How you prepare

 Before an MRI exam, eat normally and continue to take your usual medications, unless otherwise instructed. You will typically be asked to change into a gown and to remove things that might affect the magnetic imaging, such as:

  • Jewelry
  • Hairpins
  • Eyeglasses
  • Watches
  • Wigs
  • Dentures
  • Hearing aids
  • Underwire bras
  • Cosmetics that contain metal particles