Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a medical procedure that utilizes a magnetic field and radio frequency pulses to investigate the health of interior organs and body structures. As a non-invasive alternative to surgery, MRI technology has become an invaluable tool for the treatment and diagnosis of a number of conditions, including many cancers.
MRIs are especially adept at creating images of soft tissue. For this reason, the technology is often used to aid in the treatment and diagnosis of brain cancer, breast cancer, bone cancer, soft tissue sarcomas and tumors affecting the spinal cord. If your doctor has scheduled an MRI test, then you likely have many questions. Answers to the most frequently asked questions relating to an MRI are detailed below:
How does an MRI scan work?
An MRI machine is essentially a large tube. The patient is asked to lie down on a moveable bed, which is then inserted into the tube. Within the tube resides a large circular magnet, which is designed to align the protons of hydrogen atoms in your body. Through the use of radio frequencies, these protons become agitated and emit a faint signal that is recorded by a receiver. This information is then translated into a visual image via computer. The result is a clear, highly accurate depiction of a cross-section of your internal body.
Where is an MRI performed?
MRI machinery is quite large and rather expensive. For this reason, patients are typically required to visit a hospital or independent doctor’s office to receive an MRI. The procedure can be performed on an in-patient or out-patient basis. Some cancer research facilities also own and operate MRI equipment.
How long does an MRI take?
The time required for an MRI scan varies depending on the size and portion of the body that needs imaging. However, most MRIs take between 15 and 45 minutes to complete. In some cases, the doctor may order an MR spectrometry, which returns additional insight into chemical levels within your cells. An MR spectrometry adds about 15 minutes to the total scan time.
Am I under anesthetic?
Generally, patients are completely awake and alert during an MRI scan. However, it is required that the patient remain completely still during the duration of the procedure. For some, anxieties or claustrophobia may make it difficult to remain still for extended periods of time. In such cases, the doctor may administer anesthetic.
Does an MRI hurt or cause pain?
No physical pain should result from an MRI. Most patients do not feel any sensation at all during the scan. However, as mentioned earlier, discomfort from remaining still or being enclosed in a small space may make the patient feel uncomfortable. If discomfort is felt, patients are encouraged to alert the physician or technician on hand via a hand buzzer to stop the procedure.
Does my whole body go into the machine?
Traditional MRI equipment requires patients to be inserted headfirst into the machine. Depending on the part of your body to be imaged, your body may be inserted completely into the machine. However, some MRI machines do not completely encapsulate you. In some cases, open stand-up or sit-down MRI equipment may be an option to you.
Are there any side effects from an MRI?
Unlike similar tests, such as X-rays and PET scans, MRIs do not expose patients to low levels of radiation. For this reason, there are no known side effects that result from MRI scans. However, due to the magnetism of an MRI, patients who have metal pins, plates or surgical clips in their bodies should not go through with an MRI.
How do I prepare for an MRI scan?
In some cases, patients may be asked to refrain from eating for at least an hour prior to the procedure. Additionally, all metallic objects – such as piercings – should be removed prior to the test.
Who operates the machine?
Likely, an MRI technologist will operate your MRI machine. Technologists are uniquely trained to operate imaging equipment, and may have pursued a post-graduate degree program relating to the field. The attending physician typically supervises the technologist during the scan.
How long before I get results from my MRI?
The time required to relay MRI results can vary considerably. The process typically requires analysis from a radiologist. The radiologist will then write a report and send it to your primary doctor so that he or she can discuss the results with you. In some cases, results are not available for one to two weeks following the scan.