Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body. In many cases MRI gives different information about structures in the body than can be seen with an X-ray, ultrasound, or computed tomography (CT) scan. MRI also may show problems that cannot be seen with other imaging methods. It is the standard diagnostic test for viewing the intervertebral discs.
In some instances, contrast material is used to enhance the images made by the MRI. Some of those imaging agents contain the chemical gandolinium. U.S. government regulators have begun warning doctors that this class of injectable can cause a rare and sometimes fatal condition in patients with kidney disease. The Food and Drug Administration is adding its strongest warning label to the imaging agents that contain gandolinium.
If contrast material is used, the technologist will put it in through an intravenous (IV) line in your arm. The material may be given over 1 to 2 minutes.
Other factors to consider before receiving an MRI include:
- Sickle cell anemia: Individuals with this medical condition may experience negative side effects from the image enhancing agent gandolium.
- Claustraphobia: With standard MRI equipment, the individual is placed inside a confined cylinder and required to remain still. Some people are uncomfortable in such confined situations. A sedative can be given and some facilities have open MRIs.
- Metal implants: In most cases, an MRI exam is safe for patients with metal implants, except for a few types. People with the following implants cannot be scanned and should not enter the MRI scanning area unless explicitly instructed to do so by a radiologist or technologist who is aware of the presence of any of the following: internal (implanted) defibrillator or pacemaker; cochlear (ear) implant; some types of clips used on brain aneurysms.
- You should tell the technologist if you have medical or electronic devices in your body, because they may interfere with the exam or potentially pose a risk, depending on their nature and the strength of the MRI magnet. Examples include but are not limited to:
artificial heart valves; implanted drug infusion ports; implanted electronic device, including a cardiac pacemaker; artificial limbs or metallic joint prostheses; implanted nerve stimulators; metal pins, screws, plates, stents or surgical staples.
- Have an intrauterine device (IUD) in place. An IUD may prevent you from having the MRI test.
There are no known harmful effects from the strong magnetic field used for MRI, but the magnet is very powerful. The magnet may affect pacemakers, artificial limbs, and other medical devices that contain iron. The magnet will stop a watch that is close to the magnet. Any loose metal object has the risk of causing damage or injury if it gets pulled toward the strong magnet. Metal parts in the eyes can damage the retina.
Depending on the quality of the MRI machine, the images can be exceedingly revealing and diagnostically helpful. Prices vary from $400 to $1,500 per examination. MRI testing is not considered experimental, so it is covered by Medicare and most insurance policies.
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