What Is an MRI Scan?

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, is a noninvasive diagnostic test that takes pictures of organs and tissues inside your body. An MRI scan creates highly detailed images that help doctors diagnose injury and disease. 

While other diagnostic imaging methods like X-rays use radiation, MRI technology creates cross-sectional views of body parts using powerful magnetic fields and radio waves. These images can reveal subtle details of the tissues in the body, which helps your doctor make a precise diagnosis and effective treatment plan.

What Does an MRI Machine Look Like?

An MRI scanner resembles a large donut. You lie flat on a table that moves into the scanner. During the scan, the area being examined will be in the middle of the scanner.

Hispanic senior woman enters MRI scanner

Why Choose University of Utah Health?

As Mountain West’s premier academic health care system, we’re known for our commitment to high-quality patient care and the latest in medical research. When you have your MRI at U of U Health, you’ll experience renowned excellence in diagnostic services, including:

  • Leaders in medical imaging: Our world-class radiologists are board-certified and fellowship-trained in medical imaging. They read and analyze more than 60,000 MRI scans of the head, brain, neck, spine, breast, heart, lungs, and other organs each year. This high volume, plus our team’s commitment to imaging research, means you get the most advanced care.
  • Leading-edge equipment: Our radiology services use state-of-the-art technology to provide quick and accurate diagnoses. Our annual MRI accreditation by the American College of Radiology (ACR) ensures that our scanners perform at the highest quality and patient safety standards.
  • Advanced certification: The Radiology & Imaging Sciences Education Program at University of Utah School of Medicine educates and trains medical technologists who perform MRI scans. Our highly skilled MRI technologists demonstrate expertise in MRI techniques and procedures to earn certification by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).

What is an MRI Scan Used to Diagnose?

Doctors use MRI scans to see disease or injury affecting internal organs and soft tissues like the brain, spinal cord, heart, liver, kidneys, muscles, and tendons.  

Patients often wonder if MRI is better than other imaging methods, such as a CT (computed tomography) scan. Both imaging techniques help detect and diagnose medical conditions and can sometimes be used together. Our experienced radiologists and your ordering physician will select the appropriate diagnostic exam based on your symptoms and the affected body part. 

What to Expect at Your MRI

One of our MRI technologists will perform your scan. The technologist will check you in and explain the MRI procedure and any additional instructions to help your exam go smoothly. 

How Long Does an MRI take?

The length of your MRI depends on the body part being scanned. Your exam can take a little as 20 minutes or as long as two hours. 

MRI: How to Prepare

While an MRI scan is painless, the equipment’s powerful magnetic field requires special precautions around metal in or outside your body. You will change into a loose-fitting hospital gown because your regular clothing might contain metal parts. We will also ask you to remove your jewelry, watches, hairpins, dentures, and hearing aids.

Our strict safety protocols include a screening questionnaire about other issues that might interfere with the image quality or pose a safety risk, such as:

  • implants or devices, such as a pacemaker or insulin pump;
  • hardware like metal plates or screws from previous surgeries;
  • hip, knee, or other body part replacements;
  • tattoos, as some ink contains metal;
  • body piercings;
  • pregnancy; or
  • certain kidney conditions.

MRI Side Effects

MRI is a safe, painless procedure. However, you may experience dizziness while being placed in the scanner. Unlike X-ray or CT imaging, MRI scans do not expose patients to ionizing radiation. When your exam is over, you will resume your daily routine and normal activity level.

MRI with Contrast

Contrast is a substance used in diagnostic imaging to provide additional information about the alterations and blood flow in tissues. For example, contrast can help doctors see tumors and infections. Not all MRIs require contrast. 

If your MRI scan requires contrast, the technologist will inject a metallic substance called gadolinium. The gadolinium material we use will quickly exit your body in urine once your scan is over.

Some types of MRI require additional preparation. Learn more about preparing for different types of MRI scans.

MRI Contrast Side Effects

Severe allergic reactions to gadolinium contrast are rare. Most patients experience no side effects. However, those who do commonly experience mild reactions such as nausea and headache. 

How Long Does It Take to Get MRI Results?

MRI scan results are generally available within two business days. Your doctor will review the findings with you and develop a treatment plan. Patients with MyChart can access their MRI scan results online. 

How to Schedule an MRI Scan at U of U Health

If you need an MRI, your doctor will refer you to our radiology department. A member of our scheduling team will contact you by phone to set up your appointment.

Referring Providers

U of U Health offers a secure radiology imaging portal where you can log in and view your patient’s imaging records taken at any one of our health centers. Please see our imaging referral page for complete details.