What to expect if you need an MRI

Your doctor just ordered an MRI. You are not sure what to expect and you are not even sure what an MRI is. We are here to help. Usually a doctor will recommend Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) when an x-ray of the offending area does not provide enough detail to make a diagnosis. Unlike x-rays that use radiation, MRIs use powerful radio frequencies and pulses to provide detailed images of soft tissue, organs, bones and internal body structures, allowing the doctor to get a better look at what might be happening deep inside your body.

MRIs are most commonly used to diagnose complaints surrounding the joints (elbows, knees, shoulders, hips). MRIs can show joint disorders such as rotator cuff tears, torn meniscus, torn labrum, arthritis, bone infections and tumors/cysts that x-rays cannot. MRIs are also commonly used to diagnose brain and spinal cord abnormalities.

When you arrive at your test, you will be asked to put on a hospital gown and remove anything with metal. This will include jewelry, watches, wigs, underwire bras and some removable dental work. Keys and personal items should be left with a family member or in a locker provided by the facility. Be sure to discuss any pertinent health issues with your doctor and the tech prior to the test. If you have had recent surgeries, transplants, have electronic devices in your body or are pregnant, please let the tech know. If your physician has ordered contrast with your MRI, you may be asked about allergies to dyes or other chemicals.

Once you are ready for the MRI the tech will bring you to the room with a large cylinder with a bed that moves in and out of the cylinder. This is the imaging machine. You will be required to remain still during the test to ensure the most detailed images are captured – which is usually between 15 and 60 minutes. This traditional type of MRI is called a closed MRI and provides the best images.

For those who might be claustrophobic, an open MRI may be available. Open MRIs do not have “sides” like its closed counterpart, but may not provide the images required for a proper diagnosis. If you have a fear of enclosed spaces, you may want to ask your doctor about the open MRI option. Be sure the facility you choose has this machine. Or, you can ask your doctor to prescribe an anti-anxiety drug to take prior to the exam to help you relax. We recommend small children be lightly sedated for an MRI. Sudden or slight movement can cause the images to be distorted.

Once the test begins, you will be alone in the cylinder, but you will be able to hear and speak with the tech if you have any questions or problems. There is also a button you can press at any time if you should need to exit the machine immediately. Although the test is non-invasive, it is quite loud. Patients describe the sounds as “loud hammering, tapping and shaking”. Some facilities allow you to bring your own music to drown out the noise. Or, the tech may provide you with earplugs.

If you are considering taking a sedative or anti-anxiety medication prior to the exam, we encourage you to have a family member or friend drive you home. Prior to leaving the facility, be sure to ask for a CD of your scan. The CD will be useful for future appointments or second opinions.

As always, if you have any questions regarding MRIs or other imaging, please contact our office.