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Alternate Names

  • magnetic resonance imaging
  • nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI)
  • Cranial MRI
  • Lumbosacral spine MRI
  • Abdominal MRI


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a noninvasive imaging technique. This special machine is used to view organs, bone and other internal body structures.

Who is a candidate for the test?

MRI can be used for a variety of purposes. A MRI of the brain, known as a cranial MRI, may be ordered by a healthcare professional to evaluate an individual's seizure disorder, headache, or other neurological symptoms.
A MRI of the spine may be requested to examine the discs between a person's vertebrae. If an individual has sustained injury to the shoulder or knee, a MRI is frequently used to study these large joints. Disease of the heart, chest, abdomen and pelvis are also commonly evaluated with MRI.

How is the test performed?

Before the test, the healthcare professional will ask if the person:
  • has any drug allergies, or history of allergic reaction to medications
  • is allergic to shellfish, or foods with added iodine such as table salt
  • has experienced claustrophobia, or anxiety in enclosed spaces. If this is a problem, mild sedating medication may be given during the examination.
A woman will also be asked if she might be pregnant. If she is, the exam is not done. As the test begins, the person lies on a flat platform. The platform then slides into a donut-shaped magnet where the scanning takes place. To prevent image distortion on the final images, the person must lie very still for the duration of the test.
Commonly, a special substance called a contrast agent is administered prior to or during the test. The contrast agent is used to enhance internal structures and improve image quality. Typically, this material is injected into a vein in the arm. The scanning process is painless. However, the part of the body being imaged may feel a bit warm. This sensation is harmless and normal.
Loud banging and knocking noises are heard by the person during some parts of the exam. Earplugs are provided for people who find the noises disturbing. After the test, the person is asked to wait until the images are viewed to see if more images are needed. If the pictures look satisfactory, the person is allowed to leave.

What is involved in preparation for the test?

Before the test, the person will be asked to remove all metal objects such as belts, jewelry, and any pieces of removable dental work. Internal metal objects that cannot be removed may distort the final images. The person should inform the MRI technologist about any previous surgery which required placement of metal, such as a hip pinning.
Since the magnetic field can damage watches and credit cards, these objects are not taken into the MRI scanner. Typically, the person having the test does not need to restrict food or fluids before an MRI scan. Certain tests, such as an MRI-guided biopsy, will require certain food and fluid restrictions. The person should consult the healthcare professional for instructions prior to the MRI.

What do the test results mean?

A specially trained doctor called a radiologist usually analyzes and interprets the MRI images. Frequently, the MRI will help to better evaluate a disease or disorder affecting organs and blood vessels.
MRI is particularly useful in evaluating the size and location of tumors, as well as bleeding at various clotting stages. The individual's healthcare professional and the radiologist will use this information to help guide the next course of action for the person's condition.


Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 1998, Kathleen D. Pagana and Timothy J. Pagana, Mosby, St. Louis.

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