MRI scan 

Introduction 

Health checks: later years

Once you reach the age of 65, you'll be offered a range of NHS health checks including some specifically for older people

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of scan that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body.

An MRI scanner is a large tube that contains powerful magnets. You lie inside the tube during the scan.

An MRI scan can be used to examine almost any part of the body, including the:

  • brain and spinal cord
  • bones and joints
  • breasts
  • heart and blood vessels
  • internal organs, such as the liver, womb or prostate gland 

The results of an MRI scan can be used to help diagnose conditions, plan treatments and assess how effective previous treatment has been.

Read more about how MRI scans work.

What happens during an MRI scan?

During an MRI scan, you lie on a flat bed that is moved into the scanner. Depending on the part of your body being scanned, you will be moved into the scanner either head first or feet first.

The MRI scanner is operated by a radiographer, who is trained in carrying out X-rays and similar procedures. They control the scanner using a computer, which is in a different room to keep it away from the magnetic field generated by the scanner. 

You will be able to talk to the radiographer through an intercom and they will be able to see you on a television monitor throughout the scan.

At certain times during the scan, the scanner will make loud tapping noises. This is the electric current in the scanner coils being turned on and off. You will be given earplugs or headphones to wear.

It is very important that you keep as still as possible during your MRI scan. The scan will last between 15 and 90 minutes, depending on the size of the area being scanned and how many images are taken.

Read more about how an MRI scan is performed.

Safety

An MRI scan is a painless and safe procedure. You may find it uncomfortable if you have claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), but most people find this manageable with support from the radiographer. Sometimes going into the scanner feet first may be easier, although this is not always possible.

MRI scans do not involve exposing the body to X-ray radiation. This means people who may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of radiation, such as pregnant women and babies, can use them if necessary.

However, not everyone can have an MRI scan. For example, they are not always possible for people who have certain types of implants fitted, such as a pacemaker (a battery-operated device that helps control an irregular heartbeat).

Extensive research has been carried out into whether the magnetic fields and radio waves used during MRI scans could pose a risk to the human body. No evidence has been found to suggest that there is a risk, which means that MRI is one of the safest medical procedures currently available.

Read more about who can and can't have an MRI scan.

Page last reviewed: 05/09/2013

Next review due: 05/09/2015

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Comments

The 28 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

BenjiTS said on 16 October 2014

Had one today - it's absolutely fine.

It was actually quite nice to have 25 minutes to myself to reflect on life!

Choose some music, lie back and relax. It's going to make some noise, just accept it and take it for what it is: the machine doing its job!

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butterfly04 said on 24 September 2014

I wanted to reply to Cupcake on the previous post. What a terrible ordeal for you and for the staff not to reassure you is not acceptable. To make sure you can have your MRI done, you should contact your GP or consultant and ask them to put in a request for Individual Funding so that you can have the scan on an 'open' or 'upright' MRI machine (these are suitable for people with claustrophobia). Good luck and I hope your next experience is better than this one.

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cupcakequeen1 said on 15 September 2014

I have just returned home from my appointment today which was to have an MRI scan on my back. The scanning unit is in the car park just now, which I understand has cut the time of waiting for an appt down and I am all for. I had read up on the hospital website before this appt as I suffer from panic attacks in small confined spaces. It advises, you may be able to go in feet first if you are suffering with claustephobia, also you can have someone in with you, so I took my husband. Also you can take a music disc, this I did, all the things to help me get through it. Firstly, my husband was not allowed in as there is no waiting area for him, nobody asked did I have a disc to play, with the radiographers back to me he answered my question of am I ok to have this scan with a coil fitted, replying was it done in the EU ? then off we went into the scanning section, earplugs given and headphones in place of we go, with two inches approx to spare and the words are you ok, had the worst panic attack ever, came out of the machine for the radiographer to say are you ok we are not hear to tortchure you, that was the end of my scan, yeah my choice it never took place,. and I left with a mumble of we will let your GP know you could not go through with the scan, and that's the way out. No alternative, no shalI get your husband, or anything just goodbye, I was in bits leaving that van. where's the compassion and help and guidance gone. Yeah its my own fault, yeah I suffer with panic attacks, is there no help for this.

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User117967 said on 23 August 2014

Hi. Got an head MRI soon for Trigeminal Neuralgia & I am very worried about it. My main worry (silly i know) is that i have drawn on eyebrows with eyebrow pencil as i have overplucked my eyebrows to almost nothing. I am never seen without. Will I be made to remove them?????

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practive said on 13 August 2014

I had an MRI scan last Thursday (6 days ago). Since then, every time I get out of bed, bend down, stand up etc, I feel dizzy. I looked on the internet and found an article in the Daily Mail (23 Sept 2011) - the headline goes "MRI scans can make you dizzy: magnetic fields disrupt fluid in inner ear".

It explains "MRI vertigo is caused by interplay between the magnetic field and the salty fluid that fills labyrinth canals, the scientists believe. The magnetic field is thought to push on the current of electrically charged particles circulating within the tubes. This in turn exerts a force on the cells which use the fluid's flow to detect motion."

I wasn't warned about this possibility before the scan and I just don't know how long the effects will last I wonder if others have been affected by this.

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PeerAdder said on 07 August 2014

Just had a scan to help diagnose nerve damage following a prolapsed disc. The scan itself was straightforward and easy - nothing to worry about. Some music would have been nice but I wasn't in there for very long (about 20 minutes) and would probably have fallen asleep if it had been any longer.

One tip - get yourself comfortable quickly as (in my case at least) there wasn't much time before the scan started. What I did notice was a slight tingling sensation in my chest and some tension in my arms when the scan was active. Not uncomfortable, but definitely there. For the record, to the best of my knowledge, apart from my fillings, my body is metal free! In any case, my head wasn't being scanned.

Take a look at this article:

https://www.biac.duke.edu/research/safety/tutorial.asp#SF_3

which covers the whole process, and even includes a section on nerve stimulation which I've not seen anywhere else and which might possibly be the source of the tingling.

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Dutchie72 said on 08 May 2014

It's been really useful reading some of these comments. I have chronic neck and back pain since falling off my bike, whilst triathlon training, nearly 4 years ago. I believe my chiropractor made my neck worse, a day after my last visit to him (6 weeks after falling off my bike), he said he was worried that I was getting any better. He asked me to come back the following week to get a second opinion from his colleague. I didn't return as the next day, I woke up at 2 am, not being able to move my head due to excruciating pain. To cut a (very) long story short, after a short stay in hospital, being in continuous pain for months, finally having an X-ray 7ish months later, I was told I had a 'loss of cervical lordosis'. Three years later, after many NHS physio appointments and cortisone injections, many visits to the doctors in tears, I am still in chronic pain. I have, this week, been told that I cannot have an MRI scan and that I will probably need more injections. This is rubbish! I am in constant pain, not just in my neck but by back too now. The first set of i jettisons worked for 7 weeks, the second didn't. The 'loss of cervical lordosis', I could've always had. Reading some of these posts, I am a bit reluctant now to keep asking for an MRI scan, but at the same time, I want to know what's going on. I am tired. I am not being listened to. I am seeing a physio tomorrow (privately) as I feel the NHS is letting me down. I am seeing NHS pain management again in July. Should I keep requesting for an MRI scan even though some of you had bad, long term symptoms? Thank you for taking the time to read this. Those of you, suffering from chronic pain, I understand. It is draining, tiring ... something we shouldn't have to put up with this day and age x

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Catgirlshirl said on 05 May 2014

Had a MRI today lasted 15 mins . Was very loud noises but I had a very nice lady radiographer talked me through it with intercom . It is very claustrophobic I never opened my eyes till I came out . Don't worry about having a MRI just think it will find out what is wrong .

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Informed patient said on 20 April 2014

I had a lumbar MRI scan (non contrast) at The Circle Hospital in Bath on March 27th. Like "Babbity Blue" below I may have had an adverse reaction to the scan from which I am still suffering three weeks later. 48 hours after the scan I felt muscle pain all over my body.
This became worse and I suffered stiffness and swelling in my right leg and arm. A multitude of tests have been carried out and infections, a heart condition, a neurological condition and other suspected causes (e.g. flu) have been eliminated.

Everyone says that there is no known side effects to non-contrast MRI scans (e.g. where no blood dye is used), but I am not so sure.

I am still only semi-mobile and the doctors declare themselves baffled.

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fluffyfred said on 10 April 2014

Had MRI scan yesterday due to continued pain attacks after gallbladder removal. I was surprised that it takes years for some people to get a scan, but I had mine two months after my op. I'll be surprised if it shows anything abnormal. It's not I have no confidence in the scan, it's just that I have a feeling that they're going to say they can't find what's causing the pain attacks.
As for the scan itself, it is painless, unless you have scars. Where my gallbladder was removed, I had pain during the bit where I had to hold my breath. The pain hasn't subsided (it's not agony, just more uncomfortable).
I am claustrophobic, but apart from a little panic when I was being put into the scanner, where I felt like the room was spinning, everything else was fine. I was told I could take my own choice of music on CD, so I took one of my CDs where I knew the words to the songs, and during the noisiest part of the scan where I couldn't hear the music, I could still sing along in my head which helped a lot. I was also provided with a blindfold as I was worried I'd open my eyes during the scan and panic.
I've had a couple of friends who found the radiographers to be abrupt when they were starting to panic, but the one who did mine was lovely and regularly checked I was still ok.
The other thing which helped a little as well, when I was sat in the waiting room, I could hear beeps and noises which were oddly calming. The radiographer confirmed that was the scanner, so although I was still nervous, it would have been worse had I not hear those noises. Obviously the experiences are different for people, but mine was good.

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shannan123 said on 07 April 2014

In response to Babbity blue's post, I am a neuroscience PhD from the University of Sydney. In March 2013 I was running some research at the MRI facility our lab uses for my studies at NeuRA in Randwick, Sydney. I went into the scanner, having given the radiographer details of what was required for myself as a 'control' in that particular brain study (being run by one of my colleagues at Sydney Uni). Following approx one and a half hours of brain scanning I got out and left. However within a couple of hours that afternoon I developed a headache which, four days later had gradually increased to full-blown meningial inflammation. I was severely ill and in a huge amount of pain for 8 months with all the symptoms typical of meningitis.Under the care of my GP and was hospitalised 3 times. My neurologist has no idea how I developed meningitis (I also went down with pneumonia while I was so sick). Although my inflammatory markers were extremely high, no bacteria or virus was detected in numerous blood tests.

I remain in a lot of pain now, 13 months later. I'm unable to bear any vibration (can't go in cars etc), no bright lights, no loud sound and no complex input (ie no TV, no radio, no electronic devices near my head such as phones). For months I was unable to even walk because of the vibration from my heels hitting the ground sending pain to my head. I am also unable to bead any sunlight on my head whatsoever. I must remain indoors and can only walk very short distances under a UV umbrella before the pain goes up - interestingly I'm able to bear hot water on my head (eg for washing my hair) so it's not simply a matter of heat on my head.

It may be coincidental that I developed this inflammatory disorder immediately following the scan but I'd had lesser headaches following putting myself into the scanner on the 2 occasions previous to this extreme one. I hope you're feeling better. If anyone else has experienced side-effects similar to these, please contact me.

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shannan123 said on 07 April 2014

I'm interested in Babbitty blue's post. I am a neuroscience PhD from Sydney, Australia. In March 2013 I was running some research at the MRI facility I use for my studies. I put myself into the scanner, having given the radiographer the settings I required for myself as a 'control' in the brain study I'm running. Following one and a half hours of brain scanning I got out and left. However that afternoon I developed a headache which, four days later was full-blown meningial inflammation. I was severely ill and in a huge amount of pain for 8 months with all the symptoms typical of meningitis. My neurologist has no idea how I developed meningitis (I also went down with pneumonia while I was so sick). I remain in a lot of pain now, 13 months later. It may be coincidental that I have this inflammatory disorder immediately following the scan but I'd had lesser headaches following putting myself into the scanner on the 2 occasions previous to this extreme one. I just wonder how many people have inflammatory reactions to the massive magnetic field, leading to pains in the body or brain following MRI. My opinions and thoughts have been disregarded by the medical fraternity, in spite of me being a qualified neuroscientist myself, which leads me to wonder how many 'ordinary' members of the public might be being ignored if they experience inflammatory pain following MRI. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who's had such reactions. I hope that you feel better soon and please persist in telling your GP or specialist how you feel. We, as medical professionals, can only make changes if we have feedback from patients and only then if we act on it appropriately. In my opinion this is not being done for MRI and it may in fact not be as safe for some people as it's being made out to be.

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Babbitty blue said on 15 February 2014

I had an MRI scan a couple of weeks ago and since have suffered badly with pains throughout my body, my mobility is now very limited, I can barely walk and it is agony putting my body weight on my legs. I have been told the MRI scan has caused inflammation of my nervous system. Has anyone suffered with these side effects, are they permanent? I am really very anxious as the pain is so severe. The scan was a spinal scan and took one hour fifteen minutes. I am now almost virtually housebound.

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Gongon said on 31 January 2014

Had MRI scan last night as part of diagnosis of my prostate. Heard a few scare stories about claustraphobia and noise so was a little concerned.
As it happened, didn't need to be.
Got changed into a gown, climbed onto table and was loaded into the machine!
Had some headphones put on with a little music but a bit too quiet as it happened.
Was given a panic button before I went in, then the machine started up with all sorts of strange noises (pops, bangs, buzzes.
Procedure took 35 minutes, at the end of which I was almost falling asleep!
Totally pain free and certainly nothing to be concerned about.
Have a biopsy next Tuesday then the diagnosis about 2 weeks away

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Richard Ormnd said on 02 January 2014

I had an MRIScan of my lower bowel today.i have had one before but being claustrophobic I was very apprehensive. As it turned out the worst bit was drinking what felt like a gallon of water with orange and having a cannula inserted. The scan took some time but was divided into short scans during which I had to hold my breath. I kept my eyes shut throughout and found that counting helped to distract me and also helped me to hold my breath. Although I was offered music and accepted I didn't hear any.
I accidentally opened my eyes once and was relieved to see lighting and that the roof of the tunnel wasn't as near to my face as I had imagined.
My advice is that the stress of the anticipation far outweighs the actual experience.lay back and relax,the time goes quite quickly.

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lots1 said on 09 November 2013

I had a MRI scan yesterday and was very, very nervous particularly having suffered from anxiety disorder. I hope this may help anyone worried about the procedure :-)

I had my head scanned, so this was in the middle of the tube. From my waist down was still outside the tube.

You are laid down and as you go in your head slides into a "cage". This was much less scary than I anticipated as it is quite close and therefore your eyes can't really focus on it properly, instead I focused on the mirror above which showed the outside and my feet.

There is a breeze flowing through the tube, which really helped reduce claustrophobia and you are given a button to squeeze if you need to speak to the staff, who were lovely.

Although I was given headphones the machine was very loud, but in no way unbearable and the staff kept talking to me between scans, to check I was OK. It can also vibrate a little, but not much. In total I was inside for about 20 minutes. The noises can help relieve the boredom actually!

There was the odd moment where I felt a little anxious, but these were fleeting and concentrating on my feet outside was enough to keep me calm. I was also pleased that as I wore no metal I did not have to change into a hospital gown (I wore jogging bottoms and jumper).

Good luck to anyone having a MRI, I hope this helps anyone worrying like I was.

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whoisthatchild said on 18 October 2013

I had my first ever MRI today for back problems. Trippy or what? As well as the warm tingly feeling I noticed a very small amount of pain in some scar tissue in my eyelid. It wasn't really anything, but I chatted with the nurse about it afterwards and she confirmed I wasn't imagining this. I should point out that I have a few scars, a lot bigger than this one, and none of the others felt anything. It must be something to do with the sensitivity or something of the eyelid. I also felt slight pains in various places in my back during the procedure, again nothing to write home about, but I noticed them nonetheless. The back pains could have been due to my back problem, but I felt them in places where my back doesn't normally hurt, as well as my normal pain areas, so I am leaning towards putting this down to the MRI as well. I also felt a little "high", for want of a better description, and again I am putting this down to the effects of the scan. All in all very strange. Also strange is the fact that I am suffering a bit less than normal after the scan, again could well be due to the MRI.
Spoke to my dad who has had MRI previously and he says he felt nothing.
I must stress that in no way would this put me off having another scan. These pains were hardly pains at all, more like "feelings". Not even enough to make me flinch (you are not allowed to move in the scanner), so that was lucky.
It is very confined though and I closed my eyes all the way through and listened to the radio through the headphones. The worst part was by far the feeling of claustrophobia, but if that would put you off (and I do get claustrophobic) then maybe you don't need the MRI. I would happily do it again if it were deemed necessary to help fix my back problem.

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Kirben said on 28 September 2013

I had an MRI scan on my pelvis yesterday and having read many people's stories, I was very nervous. I had to have the contrast dye put in through my arm and it wasn't painful and I couldn't really feel it going into my vein. The radiographer explained everything and put my mind at ease and they provided music in the head phones which I suggest you ask for. Focusing on music helps you to relax and cuts out some of the noise. And yes it is noisy but not unbearable. You actually begin to realise when a new scan is starting and finishing by the noise the machine makes. The noise is bearable and actually the whole thing lasted only 25 minutes. So don't panic, try and relax and ignore all the horror stories because it's an ok procedure.

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User804970 said on 19 September 2013

Im 20 and have been experiencing chronic back pains since i was 15 :( im 21 this year and feel like im 50. I cant remember the last time i have woke up pain frwe. Its really getting to me now. I have been tested for numerous things and tested negative. I got to the doctors and come out with now answers every time, physio has been done and xrays etc. I broke my hand and thumb in my sleep one night and didnt even realise. Doctors thought my partner had been beating me and werent curious about it one bit considering i had done it in my sleep. Im just getting fed ofnot knowing what is the matter with me and wont even consider giving me an mri or more tests. Im getting very bitter about it as a girl can get a boob job over nhs because she isnt happy with a b cup but then there is people in the same situation as me and they still dont do anything about it :( someone help me please

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Sprout01 said on 11 September 2013

I have suffered with a painful back, hips and knees for about 4years now. I've had x-rays, blood tests, physio, seen a rheumatologist and orthotics departments. Now, after all of that and having been on kapake and tramadol 3x a day, I've actually been referred for an MRI scan at last! The only thing I can suggest in getting a scan is, keep pestering the doctors. Good luck to everyone waiting for a scan or results.

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warriorsq said on 07 September 2013

York Tyler - There is a procedure to getting an MRI unless it'd deemed very serious

1st: doctor- should give painkillers and muscle relaxants for 4-6 weeks if that doesn't work he/she is obliged to refer you to hospital (if they don't after this period remind them it's your legal NHS right!)

2: physio - the usual place you will be sent by your doctor at hospital is physio, they will asses you and usually give exercises to preform for about a month if after that you have no improvement they then should refer you to an MRI.

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York Tyler said on 25 August 2013

If only my partner could get an MRI scan! He's in severe back pain and so bad we've seen an out of hours doctor at our local hospital. When it was suggested we were told they were reluctant to do it because of the costs. It makes me very angry to think that I have paid my dues for many years and then get treated in this way.

Has anyone else been refused. Prolonged pain is a sign that nerves could be damaged and this can be permanent and can mean loss of sensation or even partial paralysis. Isn't that serious enough?

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osabanti said on 14 August 2013

My wife suffers from multiple health issue, i was told she can not fit the MRI scan because she is 24stone. i am so worried, is there any other way for her?

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dianexx said on 25 April 2013

hi, i had a mri scan on my right knee yesterday, i was a bit nervous bout haveing it done, theres nothing to worry about i was only in there for 20 mins theres abit of noise, take an cd with you to listen to.

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susieh13 said on 03 August 2012

Just got home from having an MRI at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and have to say, as a claustrophobia sufferer, it was not as bad as I feared. I did keep my eyes closed the whole time, as, although there was a picture to look at, I could not see it properly without my glasses, so waste of time. The noises were a bit off-putting at the beginning but I started counting to myself, but soon gave up as I kept getting lost anyway. I had taken a Diazapam before I went, so I suppose that did help. All in all, not too bad, and I would not be so scared next time.

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milly j said on 15 May 2012

got my mri scan 2moz scanning my lower back bit nervous but readin these reports made me feel a bit more relaxed

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CathieG said on 04 June 2011

This is a quick down to earth explanation. For further information there are tabs near the top of the page for more in-depth facts for those who need them.

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rrsheard said on 15 February 2011

Far too short and lacking in information. Maybe should have links to more info

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CT scan

A CT scan uses a series of X-rays to produce very detailed pictures of the inside of your body