MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology affords physicians unprecedented insight and, unlike other imaging methods including CT (computed tomography) scans and X-rays, do not expose patients to radiation to create images. Instead, MRIs utilize strong magnetic fields and can better reveal abnormalities that are sometimes shielded by inefficiencies such as not being able to effectively screen bones or clearly contrast types of tissues that plague other imaging methods. However, no technology is perfect and, just like every other medical procedure, it is important to know both the benefits and risks that MRIs pose.
Benefits of MRIs
One of the largest benefits of using an MRI scan rather than employing CT scans or X-ray technology is the absence of radiation. Even though the amount of radiation applied to a patient while performing an X-ray or CT scan is small enough to be ruled safe by the FDA and residual effects are often effectively too minute to measure, the potential risks of exposure are enough to warrant warnings against undergoing these types of procedures unless a physician anticipates a substantial medical benefit in the form of increased clarity in diagnosis. MRIs provide a noninvasive imaging alternative that does not require radiation exposure for the patient.
A second benefit of using an MRI scan rather than other forms of imaging techniques is the technology’s superior ability to provide contrast between fat, water, muscle, and other soft tissue. Likewise, MRI images are not obscured by bone the way CT scans are. Enhanced images allow physicians to more accurately diagnose conditions and can result in quicker treatment times and higher rates of successful treatment and patient recovery.
Because of their robustness, MRI scans are used to diagnose a broad range of conditions, including cancer, heart and vascular disease, and more. MRI scans allow very detailed representations of, and differentiation between, a number of different elements in any given area of the body, and allow physicians to gain a more holistic picture of what may be occurring inside a patient than other forms of image capture technology.
Finally, an additional benefit of using MRI scans in patient treatment is that MRIs are generally painless to acquire. Though they take a bit more time to complete than other forms of imaging, conducting an MRI scan on a patient merely requires them to remain still for perhaps 30 to 60 minutes (depending on the type and location of the scan) within the machine. It often requires no injections or physical manipulation.
Risks of MRIs
While the benefits are substantial, MRI scans do pose risk. While safety protocols can be used to minimize and sometimes effectively nullify any risk factors involved, it is important that patients considering an MRI (and physicians considering whether to administer one) are aware of the potential for harm. One risk associated with MRIs is that of noise damage. MRI machines often make loud humming, clicking, or banging noises during the scan. Because the patient is inside the machine and can often be within a few inches of the source of these loud noises, it is important to don adequate ear protection before beginning the scan.
Another risk involves the contrast agents used to collect specific types of MRIs. Not all MRI imaging requires contrast dyes to be injected before the scan. However, when dyes are used, complications do sometimes occur. These can include allergic reactions or, in very rare cases, kidney malfunction as a result of a poor reaction to the dyes. H, in the case of kidney malfunction, this was observed in cases where the patient suffered from pre-existing kidney problems. Patients may have to undergo lab work to assess their kidney function prior to getting an MRI scan to ensure that their kidneys are working well enough to handle the contrast. Drinking lots of water after a contrast injection will help the body eliminate the dye. An additional important consideration when using dyes is whether the patient is pregnant or nursing. Using dyes is ill-encouraged in these cases unless the procedure is absolutely necessary.
MRIs require a patient to remain as still as possible for long periods of time. Movement can result in obscuring the resulting images and making them unusable. In the case of children, babies, or other patients unable to remain adequately still, sedation may be administered and associated complications can result.
MRIs can also cause pain, discomfort, or potential malfunction if they affect metal objects and implants inside the patient. The presence of dental implants, artificial joints, pacemakers, surgical plates, screws, or staples; even tattoos that might contain iron in the ink must be shared with the administering physician and radiologic technologist before the scan is performed to ensure safety during the procedure.
Speak with your Physician
Though (as with any medical procedure) MRI scans do incur an amount of risk, they are considered a safe, noninvasive imaging method and can greatly aid the diagnosis process. Before undergoing an MRI scan, be sure to speak with your physician about possible risks but rest assured that MRIs can provide a safe and effective method of collecting internal imaging.
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