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So, your doctor has referred you to a radiologist so that you can have an MRI scan. Would you like to know what it’s going to be like? Well, here’s our ‘MRI what to expect’ guide.

MRI scans are nothing to be afraid of. Like we’ve talked about elsewhere, the scan itself is not at all dangerous, and you won’t experience any unpleasant side effects. Even so, your first scan is likely to be a daunting experience. So to help you through that very first time, here’s our quick description of what to expect before, during and after.

MRI what to expect

Image courtesy of Storyblocks.

MRI what to expect: Is there anything I have to do before my scan?

There are a number of things that you have to inform your radiologist- the person who interprets MRI scans– of before your appointment at the clinic. These are factors which could affect the quality of the scan, or could prove to be dangerous. So, before you can have your scan, you have to inform your radiologist of the following:

  1. Do you have any hidden piercings, or internal metal plates or screws? Bringing these even into the vicinity of an MRI scanner while it’s running, let alone being inside it, would result in permanent damage.
  2. Do you suffer from claustrophobia? If you do, you will find being inside an MRI scanner exceptionally uncomfortable, even if it is a short bore version.
  3. Do you have a history of allergic reactions, even to food like peanuts or milk? If so, the gadolinium injection could prove to be a trigger of anaphylactic shock.
  4. Do you have a history of kidney problems? Again, this could mean that gadolinium could be dangerous if injected. This is especially the case if your kidneys are currently in a state of ill health.

We can find all of this information in your medical history. But there is always a chance that some of your medical history is missing or incomplete. As such, it is always better to be safe than sorry. You should always double check with your radiologist that they are aware of your medical history, so as to avoid any unfortunate accidents. Each year, there is normally a story- often somewhere like India or China- where a junior doctor fails to properly check that their patient doesn’t have any piercings or pacemakers. The results are never good.  That’s why why triple check your medical history (and with you) that you’re fit to go through an MRI.

MRI what to expect: What will my first scan be like?

After you arrive, we’ll confirm all of your details with you. We’ll ask you to change into a hospital gown and to remove any jewelry. This is for the sake of safety, since a hospital gown is guaranteed not to react to the MRI scanner’s magnetic field… Whereas your ear piercing or belt buckle could cause serious injury.

After this, depending on the circumstances under which you need an MRI scan, you may be asked to undergo an injection by way of IV drip. This IV drip contains what’s called gadolinium, which is a harmless substance that helps your radiologist to see more detail in your soft tissue.

Once you have been through all this, you will be ready for your scan. You will lie down in the MRI scanner, and when you’re ready, the radiologist will start scanning! If you didn’t know, an MRI scanner never closes around you, either from the top or the bottom. Both ends always remain open, and the room should be well lit, so that you can always see what’s going on.

Scanning typically takes between 45 minutes and an hour per body part. This is because the MRI scanner isn’t just making one big, 3D model of your head, arm, leg or torso: it’s taking scans in layers, one by one. That’s why MRI scans always look so flat, like the one below. There may be points during your scan when you’re asked to take a deep breath, and hold it. This is so the scan take as detailed pictures as possible- like holding a camera still.

MRI what to expect: What about when the scan’s over?

Once your radiographer feels that they have taken enough scans, they’ll tell you that the scan is over. As we’ve pointed out, this should take about an hour. And don’t worry, after your scan is over, you’ll be allowed straight out of the MRI scanner! Although if you do start to feel claustrophobic while you’re in there, every clinic can provide an accessible panic button, which you can press at any point. So you don’t have to wait if you seriously want to get out!

We’ll remove your IV drip, and you can go home as soon as you feel fine. While it is rare, some patients- one in a thousand- experience wooziness and dizziness because of the gadolinium. If you’re one in a thousand, then we’ll make you feel welcome: you can sit or lie down until you feel better. The same goes for anybody who required sedation because of claustrophobia.

Normally, you’ll only need one scan. But in the event that the MRI scan is inconclusive, or it finds something which requires further investigation, you may be invited to return. This may be the case if your first MRI wasn’t an MRI with contrast, and the radiologist feels it necessary to see more detail in your soft tissue.