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What to Expect from an MRI

Updated on April 19, 2015
MRI Machine
MRI Machine | Source

What Exactly is an MRI?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetic resonance to take detailed, high resolution images of your body that other procedures such as X-rays are not able to detect. An MRI does not produce a photo but rather a map of specific parts of your body which are highly valuable to your prognosis, diagnosis, and future treatment plan.

I recently had my first MRI during a yearly follow-up with my provider to monitor scoliosis issues with my spine. Below is the information I learned during the MRI process including reasons your doctor may recommend the procedure, questions you should ask, benefits vs. risks, preparing for the procedure, what you should expect during the scan, and following up with your provider afterwards.

Reasons Your Provider may Recommend an MRI:

  • To get a more accurate picture of your body.

  • To identify specific abnormalities.

  • To recommend the most appropriate treatment plan.

  • To determine if further tests or procedures are required.

  • To defer or more accurately recommended surgery.

Questions You Should Ask before the Scan

Asking your doctor questions
Asking your doctor questions | Source

If your doctor has recommended an MRI scan, below are some questions you should ask and ensure you fully understand prior to undergoing the procedure:

  • Will the scan be covered by my insurance?

    Your provider may not be able to answer this question, but he or she can direct you to the billing department and the right people who can get you the financial answers you need.

  • Is this absolutely necessary or are there alternatives?

    As with any recommended procedure, it’s important to ask your doctor if this is the right treatment, necessary to move forward with your care, and if there are any alternatives you should consider.

  • Which type of machine is right for me?

    In recent years, there have been several developments to MRI machines, giving patients options to make sure they undergo the scan that is right for them.

  • What are the risks and the benefits?

    Before undergoing any procedure, you should fully understand the risks and the benefits. Often your provider will not recommend any procedure unless the benefits outweigh the risks. MRIs are typically very low risk procedures, but it’s important to fully understand what it entails.

  • What can I expect?

    If you’re feeling any anxiety about the procedure, ask your doctor what you can expect and how long it is projected to take to give you peace of mind.

Benefits of the Procedure

MRI scans allow your doctor to get a much clearer, higher resolution picture of what is going on inside your body which will allow him or her to make a more well-informed diagnosis and treatment plan customized to your health needs. MRIs provide a picture into our anatomy that you cannot get from X-rays or other traditional scans. Unlike a traditional X-ray, MRIs do not use radiation so are considered safer for older and younger patients and even used in women who may be pregnant.

 
 
 
Non-invasive and Painless
Useful for multiple diagnosis
Check multiple areas
High resolution images
Assess the extent of damage
Detect abnormalities

As with most any medical procedure, there are usually risks that accompany the benefits and so should be carefully discussed with your provider so you know if this procedure is right for you.

Risks of the Procedure

Risks of an MRI are very minimal in comparison with the benefits of being able to have a clear picture of what’s happening in your body and getting the right diagnosis.

The most common risks are outlined, below:

 
 
 
Potential pregnancy risks
Conflicts with insulin pumps
Claustrophobia
Conflict with implants / devices
Conflicts with chemo pumps
Required ability to stay still
Technologist
Technologist | Source

Perhaps the biggest concerns for most patients before an MRI scan is claustrophobia and concerns about the ability to stay still for a prolonged period of time. Discuss sedation options with your provider and make sure to bring up any concerns with anxiety you may have prior to the procedure.

If you have any additional concerns, implants, or hardware that you are concerned may conflict with the exam, be sure to discuss that with your doctor and the technology before the scan begins.

Preparing for the Procedure

Preparing for the procedure will be relatively easy, mostly ensuring you remove any accessories, jewelry, or aides that could interfere with the magnetism of the machine.

The technologist will usually ask you to change into a gown, or shorts and a shirt with no buttons or zippers and then ask you to remove items such as the following:

 
 
 
Jewelry
Hearing aid
Bra
Wigs
Glasses
Hair pins or clips

Once you are changed and all accessories and potential items that may conflict with the machine have been removed, you will be escorted back to the procedure room where the technologist will begin prepping you for the procedure.

During the procedure
During the procedure | Source

You will be asked to lie down on the table which contains a soft mattress pad, and positioned accordingly depending on what area you are going to have scanned. If you are very claustrophobic you may be offered the option of having sedation usually administered via a doctor’s prescription. Once you are positioned as comfortable as possible with the use of pillows and foam supports, the technologist may offer you a warm blanket to help you feel even more comfortable and reduce any remaining anxiety.

In recent years, it has become common practice for many facilities to offer patients the option of watching a movie or listening to music during the exam. When I had my recent exam, I opted for the movie option in which a set of goggles (much like a View Master) that the technologist will securely strap over your eyes and provide you with ear phones. Watching a movie is a great option if you are new to the exam and are not sure what your anxiety level might be like and helps keep you distracted if you begin to feel uncomfortable.

During the Scan

Have you ever had an MRI?

See results

Once you are adjusted and as comfortable as possible on the table, your technologist will hand you a small signaling button or device that you can press or squeeze during the exam if you need to communicate with him or her.

The technologist will regularly communicate with you during the exam to let you know how things are going, reassure you, and let you know how much time is left. Don’t be afraid to hit the signal button if you are feeling very uncomfortable or wanting to know how much time is left. It can be difficult for many patients to hold still for prolonged periods of time so have that line of communication is important for helping you feel secure and tolerate the duration of the procedure.

What happens during the scan

My MRI Experience

My last MRI was ordered by my physician to take a full view of my spine so I was positioned on my back with my head and knees supported by pillows. It took just under an hour. The first half of the exam was a breeze as I laid comfortably under the warm blanket and watched a movie. The last half of the exam was much more challenging than I thought it would ever be. Having to lie still in one position for a prolonged period of time was very difficult coupled with the increasing heat of the bed and the warm blanket.

My technologist regularly communicated with me during the exam to let me know that the images were turning out great and how many increments of time were left. This helped me focus on pushing through and focusing on my breathing to make it through to the end of the exam.

After it was over, I cannot recall a time when I was ever so glad to be able to move around and stretch my legs! Once I removed the warm blanket I was also relieved to feel the cool breeze in the procedure room. The technologist allowed me to change back into my clothes, replace my jewelry and accessories, and escorted me back out of the facility. After about 3 days, I was able to follow up with my primary doctor and go over the results together so the quick turnaround of this exam is a real advantage in moving forward with one’s care plan.

Discussing the Results with your Provider

Head scan results
Head scan results | Source

Typically your doctor will work with a trained radiologist to read and interpret the results of your scan. He or she will then discuss the results with you and discuss whether or not further scans or tests may be necessary and the best course of treatment for your medical issues.

Some important questions to ask your provider when discussing your results:

  • Did the images provide good results?

  • What are your recommendations based off of the results?

  • What is the next step in my treatment plan?

  • Will I need another MRI in the future?

  • Will additional tests or procedures be required?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Many providers use MRIs as part of routine procedures in their patients’ treatment plans and are great at interpreting the results, but if there is something you do not understand or need clarity, don’t be afraid to ask to get the answers you need to take your health into your own hands.

Have you ever had an MRI? What was your experience like? Did it allow you to move forward in your treatment plan? Share your experience in the comments, below!

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    • profile image

      Audrey Christensen 2 years ago

      I tell all the women to close their eyes and pretend they are at the beach and there are cute constuction workers working on the road with a jackhammer :)

    • WheelerWife profile image
      Author

      WheelerWife 2 years ago from Minnesota

      BarbaraCasey - that's really great they offered you a "break" in between images so you could move around and adjust! I may have to request that if I ever have an MRI again the future.

    • WheelerWife profile image
      Author

      WheelerWife 2 years ago from Minnesota

      GarnetBird - sorry you had such an uncomfortable 2nd experience. Sounds like if given the option, it's probably a great idea to accept the valium or at least the video/headset option.

    • GarnetBird profile image

      Gloria Siess 2 years ago from Wrightwood, California

      My first mri was okay, as they gave me a valium and the machine was roomy. My second was very bad..a small mri, no medication, and I felt intensely trapped and even frightened. Good hub!

    • profile image

      BarbaraCasey 2 years ago

      My MRI was of the brain and detected a small stroke. It was one of the enclosed types of machines and my way of coping was to "zone out" into a meditative state and try to tune out the jackhammers that were pounding next to my head. I had headphones but it was still pretty noisy. They broke the session into two segments so I could wiggle around in between... and get a break from the hammering. This is one procedure I'd rather not have to undergo again.