Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the Bones, Joints, and Soft Tissues

Your doctor will order an MRI when its specific diagnostic 3-D technology will be helpful to create, confirm, or exclude a diagnosis. An MRI is non-invasive—and can help explain why you are experiencing symptoms and help pinpoint treatments that can alleviate them.

What Is Magnetic Resonance Imaging?

An MRI can visualize defects in both bone and soft tissue—and in soft tissue it detects injury and abnormality in greater detail and with superior accuracy than with other imaging methods. In fact, high-resolution MRI can provide a remarkably detailed look at cartilage, tendons, nerves, and other soft tissues.

Preparing for an MRI Exam

MRI preparations are easy. Food, drink, and medication restriction is not necessary. In fact, the only pre-scan requirement is that all removable metallic matter (e.g., coins, jewelry, keys, watches, prosthetic and dental devices, hearing aids, eyeglasses) be excluded from the examination room. Credit and debit cards are magnetically programmed and therefore, they should also be excluded from the exam room. People who suffer from extreme claustrophobia might be prescribed a sedative to help relax them prior to the scan.

During an MRI Scan

The MRI procedure itself is painless. You will lie still (to ensure the imaging is not blurred) on a table inside a magnetic tube with both ends open. From a separate room, a skilled and experienced technologist will conduct your MRI—which will last anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour. You are assured that your technologist has specialty MRI training and will perform your MRI under the guidance of your attending orthopedic radiologist. You might need to hold your breath during certain parts of the examination and you will intermittently hear banging sounds, which are a normal component of the imaging process. The MRI machine uses a powerful magnet to produce magnetic fields that assess your body’s protons and energy release. You will not feel these magnetic fields, and will not see or feel any forces or objects moving around you. Most patients fare well during an MRI, with little to no anxiety or discomfort.

After an MRI Scan

If a dye was used during the MRI scan, the IV will be removed from your arm before you go home. Most patients are not sedated during an MRI, and can resume normal activity afterward. However, if you need sedation (e.g., for claustrophobia) you can have someone drive you home as soon as you are alert.
Next, your radiologist (or a group of radiologists) will evaluate your bone or tissue response to the testing to differentiate injuries and conditions. Findings from this evaluation will be reported to your doctor, who will discuss possible diagnoses and next steps with you. Additional tests may be ordered.

What are the risks?

Generally, MRI is safer than X-rays and computerized tomography (CT) in that no radiation is used. In fact, it is one of the safest diagnostic tests. People with pacemakers or particular medical implants are not candidates for MRI; that will be determined in a pre-scan survey designed to ensure all patients’ safety.