What is an MRI?

Magnetic resonance imaging also called MRI for short is a type of diagnostic medical imaging test your doctor may order. It differs from other imaging scans, such as CT scans and X-rays in that you are not exposed to radiation during the test. Instead, an MRI uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create images of soft tissue, bones and internal organs. 

What to Expect During an MRI

An MRI scanner is a large tube-shaped machine. Some MRI scanners are considered “open.” The open MRI machine has a different design, which keeps the space open on both sides. The open configuration may ease anxiety for patients who are claustrophobic.

When you undergo an MRI, you’ll lie on a bed, which slides in and out of the MRI scanner. The MRI machine does not close in on you or spin. But the scanner makes a loud knocking sound while undergoing the procedure. You can request earplugs during the scan to block out the noise.

While each image is being taken, you will be asked to remain still in order to get the clearest pictures. The technician may instruct you to hold your breath briefly at various intervals during the procedure depending on what body part is being scanned. During the scan, an intercom system is used to keep you in communication with the MRI tech performing the test.

In some cases, your doctor may order an MRI with contrast. If contrast is used, a needle is inserted into the vein to establish an intravenous line. Dye is injected through the IV, which helps create clearer images of certain organs.

There are no side effects from an MRI, and you should be able to resume normal activities. If you received medication to help you relax before having the MRI, it might take a few hours to wear off.

How Long Does an MRI Take?

An MRI often takes between twenty minutes and about an hour depending on which body part is being scanned.

Reasons an MRI is Done

Since the scan creates images of organs and other body structures, it can help your doctor make a diagnosis. It can also be used to rule out certain medical conditions. An MRI can be used to scan most parts of the body including the chest, liver, spine and brain among others.

An MRI scan can be used to identify a wide range of disorders and conditions, such as bone and joint damage, spinal and brain tumor and central nervous systems disorders.

Preparations Required by the Patient

There is usually not a great deal of preparation needed before having an MRI unless specified by your doctor. In some cases, there may be some dietary restrictions depending on which part of the body you are having scanned. For example, if you have an abdominal scan, you may be asked not to eat four hours before the scan. Better images may be produced with an empty gastrointestinal tract. In other cases, you may not have any dietary restrictions.

Because of the magnetic pull, if you are wearing any clothing with metal zippers or fasteners, you will be asked to change into a hospital gown. You should also avoid wearing any metallic makeup or body lotions, which can interfere with the images. You will also be asked to remove objects, such as watches and hair pins. Cell phones and credit cards with magnetic strips are also not allowed in the MRI room.

Before the scan, you’ll be asked about your medical history and questions, such as whether you have any of the following:

Implanted insulin pumps

Aneurysm clips


Metal fragments or implants in your body

Body piercings


Some conditions or situations may prevent you from having the scan.


Are there risks to having an MRI?

An MRI does not use radiation and is considered safe. If you have an MRI with contrast, an allergic reaction to the dye is possible, although rare.

Can I still have an MRI if I have metal in my body?

Your doctor will review your medical history and determine if it is safe for you to have an MRI scan if you have metal implants or fragments in your body.

When will my doctor have the results?

The images taken need to be processed and reviewed by a radiologist. The exact timeframe on when you get the results can vary. Ask your doctor when you can expect results.

Does an MRI hurt?

An MRI is painless. Since you do need to lie still, it is possible some people can become uncomfortable.

What if I am Claustrophobic? 

Many hospitals and radiological centers use open MRI machines, which may decrease your likelihood of feeling claustrophobic. Also, you can request medication to help you relax. During the procedure, you’ll be able to communicate with the technician, which may also reduce anxiety.

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