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4 Feb, 2021

The Many Uses For MRI Scans

Are you currently waiting for an MRI appointment?

It can be a worrying and scary time waiting to be contacted for your scan. You don't know whether it will result in an illness being detected, or you might be worrying for nothing. 

Here at National MRI Scan, we can eliminate the anxiety of waiting. We offer rapid scans, within 7 days, so you can get your results back before you have time to think about it. 

This guide will enable you to discover what magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is and why it is beneficial for our health. 

What is a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan?

Magnetic resonance imaging sounds like a big and scary name. However, an MRI is non-invasive and painless. It can also provide your doctor with essential information about your body that no other imaging modality can. 

An MRI scanner is a long tube made up of magnets used to produce a strong magnetic field.

Along with radio waves, the magnetic field is used to create amazing 3D images of inside the body. The detail that every image shows can help provide accurate diagnoses and help work out treatment plans.  

Closed MRI

This is your traditional MRI scanner. It looks like a tunnel that patients are taken into during the scan. 

The advantages of Closed MRI

  • Strong magnetic fields are used
  • The high-quality images of the body are produced 
  • The doctor can be more confident about their diagnoses 

However, if you have a fear of enclosed spaces, then this type of MRI device can cause anxiety. The scanner is also has a limit on the maximum patient size that it can scan. This can make Open MRI preferable.

Open MRI

This is a newer type of MRI scanner that is not suitable for all MRI procedures. 

Instead of an enclosed tube, this type of scanner has a magnet at the top and a magnet at the bottom. This means that the sides are open, eliminating the feeling of being enclosed. 

The advantages of Open MRI:

  • Better for patients with anxiety about enclosed spaces 
  • Can be used for larger patients 
  • Enables patients to be scanned in different positions, which can be useful for imaging certain body structures. 

It might not produce the same quality image as a Closed MRI scanner, but an Open scanner does have many benefits.

Further reading - What is an MRI Scan?

How does an MRI scanner work?

Our bodies are made up of water molecules. Each one of these molecules contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Each hydrogen atom has a charged proton in their centre. It is these protons that release signals, enabling images of the body to be produced. 

Because the protons are charged particles, they are attracted to the strong magnetic field, produced by the powerful magnets. This means that when the magnets are turned on, protons will align inside the body along the machines magnetic field. 

Radio waves are then used to push the protons out of this alignment, which changes their position. Once the radio waves are turned off, the protons move back along the magnetic field. 

The speed that the protons move and the electromagnetic energy they release creates signals. This provides information on the position of the protons in the body, enabling images to be formed.  

Creating detailed images of the human body. 

Some MRI images will require the use of a contrast dye, usually made from gadolinium. The dye encourages protons to realign faster once the radio waves have been switch off. This results in brighter and more detailed images being produced. 

Gadolinium dye is generally safer than iodine contrast, but, there is still a risk of an allergic reaction occurring in certain patients. If you are allergic to any contrast dyes, you should let your radiologist know before the procedure. 

Contrast dyes can also have serious side effects in patients with kidney disease. So, if you have kidney issues, you should let your radiologist know. You may need blood tests before your scan. 

The uses for MRI scans

Medicine and scientific research have multiple uses for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), especially as MRI is good at imaging body structures such as joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons. 

Compared to an x-ray or CT scan, an MRI can produce images with much more soft tissue detail. 

Disease detection

MRI one of the most sensitive imaging options available to doctors. 

This has enabled the medical world to improve their ability to diagnose disease early, so hopefully, they can also improve the prognosis of certain serious illnesses.

MRI may be used to diagnose many different diseases:

  • Brain and spinal cord injuries  
  • Blood vessel abnormalities 
  • Lymph node abnormalities
  • Diseases of abdominal, chest and pelvic organs (e.g. liver, kidney and heart)
  • Various cancers 
  • Joint injuries 
  • Infertility  

This type of imaging has revolutionised disease detection for patients because it enables a non-invasive, quick, and pain-free method for getting an accurate diagnosis. Previously, patients would need to undergo risky surgeries to diagnose many of these conditions. 

Monitor treatment of conditions

For people with ongoing serious illnesses, MRI can be an important part of their treatment plan. 

Regular scans can monitor the progression of a disease. This enables doctors to see if treatments are working or if the disease is spreading.

You might know of people who are suffering from cancer who go for regular MRI scans. This is to assess if treatments have reduced the size of any tumours. It will also detect if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

To put MRI in perspective, MRI can often detect signs of cancer in our body long before it will show on x-ray images! This highlights how important MRI scanners are to our healthcare. 

Brain anatomy and anomalies

Magnetic resonance imaging has revolutionised the way brain problems are diagnosed and dealt with. It has enabled us to detect life-threatening conditions that we otherwise would not have been able to diagnose. 

In particular, MRI images have been vital for enabling doctors to develop their knowledge of brain and spinal cord anatomy. This is because MRI can distinguish between white and grey matter, which is the tissue that makes up the brain. 

Using MRI to detect brain abnormalities:

  • Brain injury and trauma 
  • Spinal cord injury and inflammation
  • Stroke 
  • Bleeds
  • Tumours 
  • Aneurysms 

Functional MRI (fMRI) 

Functional MRI is an exciting development in the world of MRI scanning. This highly specialised scan can look at which parts of the brain are active during certain neurological activities, by looking at the amount of oxygen used. 

Along with improving our knowledge of how the brain works, this is also an exciting development for enabling doctors to access a patient's neurological status. 

Other health information

Surgeons will often use MRI scans to help them plan for surgery. 

An MRI can provide detailed information about the size and structure of an area of diseased tissue and its position in the body. This can help the surgeon prepare for the procedure, enabling the best outcome for the patient.  

MRI scans are also used as part of a screening process for certain diseases (e.g. breast cancer). Some people are at a greater risk of developing specific conditions due to their genes or family history. To make sure that there are no early signs of disease, you might be offered a scan. 

Why MRI scanning is important

The development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was revolutionary. It has enabled doctors to obtain highly detailed images which have taken diagnostics to a new level. 

Now soft tissue injuries can be detected, right down to the specific tendon or ligament involved. Blood vessels can be assessed for any developmental abnormality or presence of an aneurysm. The brain and spinal cord can also be imaged in incredible detail, making the MRI scanner an important part of neuroscience progression. 

The major advantage of an MRI scan compared to x-rays or a CT scan is that there is no radiation involved, making this one of the safest diagnostic tools available in the medical world. 

MRI scanning in the future 

Research is already underway for the development of new and innovative MRI uses. This will enable MRI to be used to gain more information about how disease affects the human body. It will also make MRI more accessible for everyone.

Possible uses for MRI in the future:

  • Investigating the metabolic rate of tumours and how this affects disease progression within the body. This will provide patients with a more accurate prognosis, and doctors can monitor disease development in more detail. 
  • Making MRI more child friendly. Currently, most children require general anaesthetic when having an MRI scan. This ensures that they stay still inside the MRI unit. However, MRI scanners are being developed to make the device less scary for kids to reduce the risks associated with general anaesthetics. 

How to prepare for an MRI scan

There is no need to worry about the MRI scan that you have booked. 

You can continue eating and drinking before the scan, so there is no need to miss breakfast. If you are on any medications, then, you should continue to take them as normal, unless a doctor has told you otherwise. 

What to expect

An MRI scan can take between 15 to 60 minutes. This will depend on which part of the body is being scanned, how many images are needed and whether any images need repeating. If your scan requires contrast dye to be given, then your scan might take a bit longer. 

The day of your MRI scan. 

Once you arrive here for your scan, you will be asked to remove any metal items (e.g. watches and jewellery) before entering the scanner room. This is because the MRI scanner is made up of powerful magnets. 

During the scan, you will be asked to lie flat on a bed that goes into the scanner. This can cause some people to feel anxious, so we are happy to talk you through this process before your scan to help you feel more comfortable. 

You must stay still throughout your scan, so the clearest images are produced.

Once the scan begins, the radiographer will be a separate room controlling the scanner, but they will be able to see and talk to you at all times. If you are feeling uncomfortable, then you can request the scan to stop at any time. 

The MRI machine at work. 

Throughout your scan, you will periodically hear loud clicks. This is just the scanner working and the magnetic fields and radio waves being turned on and off to produce the images. These sounds are completely normal but can be a bit of shock if you don't expect them. 

To help keep you calm, we can give you earplugs or headphones to wear during your scan. This will make the MRI machine noises less noticeable. 

FAQs

What are MRI scans most commonly used for?

There are numerous reasons why MRI scans are used in the medical world. 

Often an MRI scan is considered after other test results have proved inconclusive. At this stage, the complex and detailed images obtained from an MRI is crucial for getting a patient an accurate diagnosis. 

Common reasons for needing an MRI scan include:

  • Diagnosing illnesses 
  • To screen for disease 
  • To monitor treatment 
  • To reassess an injury 
  • Help plan for a future surgery
Your doctor will discuss with you why they are recommending an MRI scan. Don't be surprised if you are advised to have more than one scan to monitor your treatment. 

Is it safe to have multiple MRI scans?

MRI scans do not involve any radiation, so it is safe to have multiple scans. 

There has been a lot of research completed to confirm that no side effects result from using a strong magnetic field. This is reassuring because many people will have multiple MRI scans throughout their lives. 

The only group of people who are advised not to have an MRI are pregnant women, particularly during their first trimester. 

Is it safe to have an MRI scan if I have a metal implant? 

Some people may not be eligible for an MRI if they have any of the following metal implants:

  • Pacemakers 
  • Artificial heart valves 
  • An implanted defibrillator 
  • Cochlear implants 
  • Certain artificial joints, wires, plates and screws
  • Shrapnel or bullets 
If you have a metal implant, this doesn't automatically mean you can't have an MRI. Some types of metal implants are suitable to go inside the scanner. However, you should tell our radiologist before you enter the MRI scanning room. 

Sometimes we will need to ask you for x-rays before your MRI appointment so we can check out any suspected metal implants inside your body before your scan. 

When should MRI be used?

As discussed above, there are numerous reasons why an MRI scan is advised. 

MRI is particularly good at imaging structures such as muscle, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels, which would not be picked up on an x-ray. Even ultrasound can have its limitations when looking at muscle injuries, compared to an MRI scan. 

X-rays are mostly used to look at bones. However, if there is not enough information from an x-ray image, then a radiographer may also advise an MRI scan for a clearer view. This is often the case if there is a something obscuring the area of the body that the radiologist is trying to image.

How many MRI scans can be done in a day?

We perform multiple scans in a day, but the total number will vary each day. 

This is because each MRI scan will take a different length of time, depending on which part of the body is being scanned. 

When booking in scans, we like to give you enough time, so you can adjust before your scan to reduce any anxiety. We also allow time for if any repeat images to be taken. 

We will work out our MRI scanning capacity for each day to ensure that scans don't overrun and to reduce your waiting time before your scan. 

We can usually offer you a scan quickly at your chosen centre, as we only have short waiting lists. You can also expect to have your scan results within 7 days of first contacting us.  
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