Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans produce highly-detailed images of the soft tissues and non-bony parts of your body to help doctors diagnose numerous medical conditions. Here are some frequently asked questions about MRI scans:

How does an MRI scan work?

The scanner uses magnetic energy and radio waves to create images of your organs and tissues. “MRIs are very effective at producing clear, three-dimensional images located in any part of your body,” says Roberto Soto, MD, a radiologist with Adventist HealthCare Imaging. “This scan can distinguish between fat, water and muscle better than CT scans, x-rays or other imaging tests.”

During an exam, a technologist will guide you to a table that slides in and out of the MRI scanner. Depending on your doctor’s orders, your scan may involve using contrast, which helps the radiologist distinguish certain tissues from each other. The contrast agent is administered through an IV for MRI scans. After the scan, the radiologist will analyze the images and send the results to your doctor who will confirm a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan for you.

What conditions can an MRI help diagnose?

MRI scans help detect joint problems, tumors, aneurysms, heart abnormalities, strokes and other medical conditions involving your organs. They are also used to determine the extent of damage to the body when an injury or trauma occurs, such as after a car accident or sports injury. It is also an effective tool in detecting cancer and tracking its progression. “Depending on your condition, your doctor may request you receive a more specific type of MRI scan, such as Magnetic Resonance Angiogram (MRA) scan and MR arthrography,” says Dr. Soto. “These scans can help evaluate the health of your blood vessels, arteries and joints.”

Are MRI exams safe?

Though MRI scanners are radiation-free and generally don’t produce any harmful side effects to patients, the machine uses a very powerful magnet that can attract metal objects when close to the machine. Dr. Soto says it is very important to remove all metal prior to entering the exam room. “MRIs may also pose a risk if you have certain metal objects inside of your body from a procedure or if you are pregnant, so tell your technologist if any of these conditions apply to you before your scan begins,” he says. “If you have implanted devices in your body, let the staff know ahead of time. Also, knowing the exact make and model of your implanted device can help because certain devices may be unsafe in an MRI.”

Are MRI exams uncomfortable?

The exam itself should not cause any pain to the patient. Some patients may experience mild discomfort from the contrast IV, but the discomfort usually lasts for a moment. Also, patients with feelings of claustrophobia may feel uncomfortable in the MRI scanner, so let the technologist know in advance if this is an issue for you. “Many of the newer MRI scanners, such as the one in our North Bethesda imaging center, are larger and feel less claustrophobic,” says Dr. Soto. There are steps you can take to lessen this feeling, such as listening to music. It’s important to talk with your technologist about how you feel so you are comfortable during the exam.

Sources: National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, FDA 

Adventist HealthCare Imaging offers quality imaging services such as mammography, MRI, ultrasound and SPECT/CT at several Montgomery County locations.