A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test and a computerized tomography (CT) scan are both types of imaging studies that give your doctor an insider’s view of your body. Both types of scans let your doctor see what is going on inside your body in detail without having to perform surgery.
There are many reasons why a medical might recommend an MRI vs. a CT scan and vice-versa.
An Overview of the MRI Test
Doctors use MRIs when searching for problems within the brain and spinal cord. According to the Mayo Clinic, physicians can diagnose the following conditions with an MRI:
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Cerebral aneurysms
- Spinal cord problems
The standard MRI creates images of the tissues and organs inside your body by using a magnetic field and radio waves. The images have a high level of detail.
When you have an MRI, you lie down on a table that slides inside a large metal tube. The tube is a huge magnet. A computer then generates radio waves that change the alignment of the water molecules in your body. Those cells produce barely perceptible signals. The MRI machine makes cross-section images of the area of your body in question.
A functional MRI (fMRI) is a specific type of MRI that explores the blood flow inside the brain. An fMRI scan helps doctors determine which areas of the brain are working and their capacity. Functional MRIs are used with patients who have sustained a traumatic brain injury, suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and have other conditions.
How a CT Scan Works
A CT scan shows a doctor your bones, soft tissues, and blood vessels. It produces a much clearer and detailed image than a standard X-ray. The CT scan machine takes a series of pictures from a variety of angles. A computer program then compiles those images and builds a cross-sectional picture of the part of the body that was scanned.
Doctors use CT scans in urgent situations, like when they need to locate the source of a patient’s internal bleeding after a car crash. CT scans can also reveal fractures, tumors, blood clots, infections, cancer, and nodules inside the body.
The process of undergoing a CT scan is simple. Before laying down on a motorized table, the technician will ask you to remove jewelry, dentures, eyeglasses, and anything that contains metal. Metal objects can affect your CT scan results.
First, the patient lies down on a motorized table. The table then slides through a “doughnut hole” in the scanner. The scanner rotates around the person’s body, taking pictures throughout the process. The technician will sometimes use contrast media or a type of dye to sharpen the images.
The Risks of Having an MRI
MRIs use strong magnets to produce images; therefore, anyone with metal in their body should not have an MRI. The magnet can pull the metal out of your body, injuring you and the technician. A metal object that stays in place can distort the MRI image.
If you have an electronic or metal device implanted inside your body, you will not be able to have the MRI procedure unless the object is labeled “MRI safe.”
Examples of items that contain metal and are typically unsafe during an MRI:
- Artificial joints, like knee or hip
- Intrauterine devices (IUD)
- Heart defibrillators, pacemakers, and artificial valves
- Cochlear implants
- Any metal fragment, like shrapnel or a bullet
- Surgical staples, pins, screws, stents, or plates
- Some tattoos and permanent makeup
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not have MRIs because of the unknown risks of magnetic fields and contrast material. People with liver or kidney issues might not be able to have an MRI with contrast because the contrast agent may provoke complications. Unlike a CT scan, however, there is no risk of radiation exposure during an MRI because the MRI machine does not use radiation.
Safety Issues With CT Scans
Contrast media may cause an allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. Pregnant women should speak with their doctors before having a CT scan. These imaging studies use ionizing radiation. The effect of this type of radiation or contrast media on a fetus is not known, so the doctor might elect to use a different type of imaging study.
CT scans use more radiation than standard X-rays because the machine takes far more pictures than a typical X-ray and in greater detail. Depending on your radiation exposure history, a CT scan could increase your risk of cancer.
Doctors may determine that the benefit of the medical information a CT scan provides is worth the risk. A CT scan, like any imaging study, should take place when there is a definite medical reason, and the information would benefit the patient. These are things to consider when deciding between an MRI vs. a CT scan.
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