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Hearing your doctor tell you that you need an MRI scan done on your brain can certainly be a scary thing. But the MRI scan itself is nothing to be afraid of. MRI scans are completely painless, and can help to give doctors a better understanding as to what is going on inside your head (literally). But what exactly is a Brain MRI with contrast, what is it used for, and how is it carried out? Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about brain MRIs.

Brain MRI With Contrast

Image courtesy of Storyblocks.

What is an MRI?

MRI stands for ‘magnetic resonance imaging’. MRI scans have helped to revolutionize the medical world. Since its development, doctors have been better able to see inside of the brain to both make diagnoses and to assist with difficult medical procedures. MRI scans are a non-invasive and painless procedure. With the help of such technology, many invasive surgeries are now replaced with this non-invasive approach. The MRI scanner uses magnets, radio waves, and computers to create a detailed picture of a patients internal structures and organs. The actual scanner itself looks something like a small tunnel.

How are MRIs different from other scans?

The biggest difference between an MRI scan and other types of scans like CTs and X-Rays is that they do not pose the threat of radiation. In addition, the differences between normal and abnormal tissues are often clearer in MRI’s than in other types of scans. Put simply, MRIs can usually provide doctors with a more vivid image of what is going on inside of your body. In terms of the brain, a brain MRI with contrast combines different images to create a 3D photo of your internal structures. It is therefore more helpful in detecting abnormalities in the smaller brain structures like the brain stem and pituitary gland.

What does “with contrast” mean?

Contrast materials, or dyes, are often used in MRI scans to help improve the quality of photos inside the body or brain. Such dyes can enter the body in three different ways; orally, rectally (by enema), or by injection into a blood vessel. These dyes do not cause any permanent discolouration of internal organs. They do, however, temporarily change colouring to make structures or tissues appear differently (and more vividly) than they normally would. They often help to contrast selected areas from surrounding tissues, thereby improving the visibility of specific areas. The dyes will eventually eliminate themselves from the body through urine and bowel movements.

What is a Brain MRI with contrast used for?

There are a large number of reasons that a doctor might request an MRI for the brain.  MRIs can help to detect aneurysms, strokes, or spinal cord injuries. They can also help to detect infections, tumours, cysts, and swelling. MRI brain scans may also be used in cases of hemorrhaging, inflammation, hormonal disorders, or head injuries.

A doctor may also request a brain MRI scan if certain symptoms present themselves. Such symptoms may include things like dizziness, weakness, seizures, and blurred vision. Orders for MRIs could also arise if chronic headaches or changed behaviours or thought patterns present themselves. Of course, this is not an extensive list of Brain MRI uses. Your doctor may suggest a brain MRI scan for a myriad of reasons. If you are unsure of why it is being order, it is best to just ask.

What Do I need to know before a Brain MRI with contrast?

  • Staff will ask if you have any metals within your body. – Because MRI’s make use of magnets, it is important to be upfront with staff about any metals you have with your body. These can include things like implants, pacemakers, valves, stents, clips, artificial joints, etc. MRIs can impact the way certain devices like pacemakers work. They can also shift metals around within the body. In return, doctors may suggest that anyone with metals seek alternative options.
  • You will need to remove all metals. – Likewise, staff will ask you to remove anything metal that you may be wearing. This may include things like jewellery, pens, dental pieces, etc. You cannot bring anything electronic into the MRI room.
  • MRIs can cause claustrophobia. The space in which doctors perform an MRI is relatively small and tight. Those who are claustrophobic should let their physician know. Some doctors may suggest switching to an open MRI machine. Others may prescribe anti-anxiety medications or sedatives before the procedure.
  • Brain MRIs generally last between 30-60 minutes. During this time most physicians will offer earplugs or headphones so that you can listen to music while the test is being completed.
  • Contrasts can lead to allergic reactions. If you have any allergies, notify your doctor before they give you any contrast dyes.
  • MRIs are safe and pain free. Aside from the effects that it has on metals and allergic reactions, there are no known associated risks.

What happens during the Brain MRI with contrast?

  • Your doctor will ask you a series of questions to ensure that an MRI is a safe method for you.
  • You must remove all metals from your body. You will then change into a hospital gown.
  • A technician will direct you to lay down on a flat surface. The technician will control this surface, moving you in and out of the MRI machine as necessary.
  • The physician will communicate with you via speakers inside of the machine
  • You may or may not be given headphones to block out the noises of the MRI machine
  • The entire procedure will last between 30-60 minutes

Can I go back to work after the procedure?

In most cases, yes. The only exception to this rule is if you were prescribed sedatives for claustrophobia. In such a case you will need to find a safe ride home for the day.

Depending on the severity of the reason behind the scan, results can vary in how long they take to get back. Generally speaking, the more severe the case, the quicker you will get results. Results are analyzed by a radiologist and passed on to your doctor.