Health Blog

10 Things to Know Before You Get an MRI

Posted by Nathan Switzer on Fri, Mar 20, 2009

A picture of our 3.0 T MRI Scanner, with the technologist comforting a patient positioned for an ankle study

When your healthcare provider hands you an order for an MRI exam and you aren't expecting it, sometimes it can make everything else you hear afterward sound like gibberish.  "Why do I need an MRI?  Isn't that an expensive test?  Can you get out of that machine if you want to?" are some thoughts that may flash through your mind.

Don't fear.  Be informed, and know that it is a common imaging test that's been around for more than 20 years.  Here are a few things you should know before you schedule your first MRI exam, no matter where you go.

1) Do they perform high field or open MRI?

Imaging facilities typically offer one or the other.  While an "open" unit may have a bit more room for some patients, others will still encounter a low ceiling which may cause some anxiety for the claustrophobic patient.  Open units typically have a higher table weight limit, and may help patients who have wider shoulders or perhaps a larger girth.  Many specialists like neurologists and orthopedists prefer the image quality obtained from a high field magnet.  A plus for the patient is that the exam tends to be faster as well, because there is a more powerful magnetic field (1.5 T or higher).

2) Does my insurance allow me to go wherever I want?

It is always advisable to check with your insurance to see if they have a preference for where you receive your imaging services.  It is also a good practice to get a quote from a facility you might be interested in, as prices can vary.

3) Does the MRI staff have any specialized training?

It is always good to check and see if the MRI technologists in a facility are not only ARRT registered technologists, but registered in the specific field of MRI.  This is a special test of their knowledge of the physics of the equipment, the specific pathologies and anatomy that MRI sees, and magnetic safety.  Providence Imaging Center requires all technologists that they hire to not only be ARRT registered but pass the MRI registry within 16 months of their date of hire.  

4) Can I easily get images from my exam on a CD?

A CD of your entire exam is available at many facilities.  If it is created shortly after your scan, it will not have the radiologist's report on it.  Be sure that the facility provides the images in a standard format called DICOM, which means the images can be viewed in the correct, original format no matter where you travel for healthcare.  Typically, CDs will only be viewable on PCs, not Apple computers.  There are work arounds for this, mentioned on our website

5) Do they make accommodations for people who are anxious or may be claustrophobic?

Some imaging facilities advertise an "open" MRI scanner, which can help some patients who are extremely claustrophobic, while others utilize conscious sedation to completely "knock" a patient out.  The skilled technologist has many techniques to help put patients at ease, and even very claustrophobic patients have done well in high field (more tubular shaped) MRI scanners.  One tip is to have a damp washcloth to cover the eyes.  Another is to have a friend drive you to and from your appointment, and receive a small dose of oral sedation like Xanax, which taken appropriately beforehand will relax you.  This is offered at Providence Imaging Center upon request.

6) Do they have appointments in the evenings or on weekends?

Check with the MRI scheduling staff of the imaging center if you need a special appointment time; not all will be able to accommodate your request.

7) Is the equipment well-maintained and certified by an overseeing board?

MRI equipment is quite complicated, and needs regular maintenance to run smoothly and accurately.  The American College of Radiology specializes in accreditation of imaging centers and their various modalities.  A physicist reviews images that are submitted for review, and either passes or fails a facility based on strict criteria.  It is expensive and time consuming to get accredited in this way, and completely voluntary as well.

8) Is the facility located near other medical appointments that I have?

It can be inconvenient to go to a specialty center for one test, only to find out they don't offer a companion test that has been ordered.  For example, not all facilities offer x-ray along with MRI, or offer a nearby outpatient laboratory.

9) Is MRI safe if I have a tattoo or metal piercings?

Check with MRI scheduling staff to find out about the safety of various metallic adornments.  Some may have to be removed, or may interfere with image quality but not be a danger in the MRI scanner which is ALWAYS on (even when it's not making noise).

10) I have kidney problems -- can I still have an MRI?

Let the Imaging Center know if you have a history of kidney failure.  Some MRI scans utilize a contrast agent containing gadolinium, which may require some special precautions be taken.  The conscientious technologist will check your laboratory results and possibly consult a radiologist to determine the safest way to proceed with your examination.

Tags: MRI, imaging, magnetic resonance imaging, safety, scheduling

Subscribe to blog

Ask the Doctor