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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the Head


Test Overview

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to take pictures of the head. In many cases, MRI gives information that cannot be seen on an X-ray, ultrasound, or computed tomography (CT) scan.

For an MRI of the head, you lie with your head inside a special machine (scanner) that has a strong magnet. The MRI can show tissue damage or disease, such as infection, inflammation, or a tumor. Information from an MRI can be saved and stored on a computer for more study. Photographs or films of certain views can also be made. See MRI images of a person who has had a strokeClick here to see an illustration. or a seizureClick here to see an illustration..

In some cases, a dye (contrast material) may be used during the MRI to show pictures of structures more clearly. The dye may help show blood flow, look for some types of tumors, and show areas of inflammation.

MRI of the head may be used to look for the cause of headaches. For more information, see:

Click here to view a Decision Point.Headaches: Should I Have Imaging tests to Find Out What's Causing My Headaches?

See pictures of a standard MRI machineClick here to see an illustration. and an open MRI machineClick here to see an illustration..

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
Headaches: Should I Have Imaging Tests to Find Out What's Causing My Headaches?

Why It Is Done

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head is done to:

How To Prepare

Before your MRI test, tell your doctor and the MRI technologist if you:

  • Are allergic to any medicines. The contrast material used for MRI does not have iodine. If you know that you are allergic to the contrast material used for the MRI, tell your doctor before having another test.
  • Have any other health conditions, such as kidney problems or sickle cell disease, that may prevent you from having an MRI using contrast material.
  • Are or might be pregnant.
  • Have any metal implanted in your body. This helps your doctor know if the test is safe for you. Tell your doctor if you have:
    • o Heart and blood vessel devices such as a coronary artery stent, pacemaker, ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator), or metal heart valve.
    • o Metal pins, clips, or metal parts in your body, including artificial limbs and dental work or braces.
    • o Any other implanted medical device, such as a medicine infusion pump or a cochlear implant.
    • o Cosmetic metal implants, such as in your ears, or tattooed eyeliner.
  • Have an intrauterine device (IUD) in place. An IUD may prevent you from having the MRI test done.
  • Become very nervous in small, tight spaces. You need to lie very still inside the MRI magnet. You may need medicine to help you relax.
  • Wear any medicine patches. The MRI may cause a burn at the patch site.

You may need to arrange for someone to drive you home after the test if you are given a medicine (sedative) to help you relax.

You will need to sign a consent form that says you understand the risks of an MRI and agree to have the test done. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information formClick here to view a form.(What is a PDF document?).

How It Is Done

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test is done by an MRI technologist. The pictures are read by a radiologist. But some other types of doctors (such as a neurologist or neurosurgeon) can also read an MRI scan of the head.

You will need to remove all metal objects (such as hearing aids, dentures, jewelry, watches, and hairpins) from your body because these objects may be attracted to the powerful magnet used for the test. If you have had an accident or you work around metal, there is a chance that you have metal pieces in your head, eyes, skin, or spine. An X-ray may be taken before the MRI to see if you can have the test.

You may need to take off some of your clothes. You will be given a gown to wear during the test. If you keep your clothes on, empty your pockets of any coins and cards (such as credit cards or ATM cards) with scanner strips on them because the MRI magnet may erase the information on the cards.

During the test you will lie on your back on a table that is part of the MRI scanner. Your head, chest, and arms may be held with straps to help you lie still. The table will slide into the space with the magnet. A device called a coil may be placed over or wrapped around your head. Some MRI machines (called open MRI) are now made so that the magnet is not around your whole body. See pictures of a standard MRI machineClick here to see an illustration. and an open MRI machineClick here to see an illustration..

Some people feel nervous (claustrophobic) inside the MRI magnet. If this keeps you from lying still, you can be given a medicine (sedative) to help you relax. Open MRI machines may be helpful if you are claustrophobic.

Inside the scanner you will hear a fan and feel air moving. You may also hear tapping or snapping noises as the MRI pictures are taken. This is normal. You may be given earplugs or headphones with music to reduce the noise. It is very important to hold completely still while the scan is being done. You may be asked to hold your breath for short periods of time.

During the test, you may be alone in the scanner room. The technologist will watch you through a window. You will be able to talk through a speaker.

If contrast material is needed, the technologist will put it in an intravenous (IV) line in a vein in your arm or hand. The material may be given over 1 to 2 minutes. Then more MRI scans are done.

An MRI test usually takes 30 to 60 minutes but can take as long as 2 hours.

How It Feels

You will not have pain from the magnetic field or radio waves used for the MRI test. The table you lie on may feel hard and the room may be cool. You may be tired or sore from lying in one position for a long time.

If a contrast material is used, you may feel some coolness and flushing as it is put into your IV.

In rare cases, you may feel:

  • A tingling feeling in the mouth if you have metal dental fillings.
  • Warmth in your head. This is normal. Tell the technologist if you have nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, pain, burning, or breathing problems.

Risks

There are no known harmful effects from the strong magnetic field used for MRI. But the magnet is very powerful. The magnet may affect pacemakers, implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs), artificial limbs, and other medical devices that contain iron. The magnet will stop a watch that is close to the magnet.

Metal pieces in the eyes can damage the retina. If you might have metal pieces in your eye, an X-ray of the eyes may be done before the MRI. If metal is found, the MRI will not be done.

Iron pigments in tattoos or tattooed eyeliner can cause skin or eye irritation.

An MRI can cause a burn with some medicine patches. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are wearing a patch.

There is a small chance of an allergic reaction if contrast material is used during the MRI. But most reactions are mild and can be treated with medicine. Contrast material that contains gadolinium may cause a serious problem (called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis) in people with kidney failure. If you have decreased kidney function or serious kidney disease, tell your doctor before having an MRI scan.

There also is a slight risk of an infection at the IV site if contrast material was used.

Results

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to take pictures of the head.

The radiologist may tell you some of the results of the MRI right after the test. Full results are sent to your doctor or specialist in 1 to 2 days.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head

Normal:

All structures of the head—the brain, its vessels, spaces, nerves, and surrounding structures—are normal.

No abnormal growths, such as tumors, in or around the brain are present.

No bleeding, abnormal blood vessels (AV malformations), abnormal pockets of fluid, blockage in the flow of blood, or bulges in the blood vessels (aneurysm) are present.

No signs of infection or inflammatory disease, such as encephalitis or meningitis, are present.

Abnormal:

Tumors in the brain or in areas outside the brain, such as an acoustic neuroma, are present.

Bleeding or swelling (edema) in or around the brain is present.

Areas of infection or inflammatory disease, such as encephalitis or meningitis, are present.

Abnormal areas in the brain may mean that certain diseases, such as Huntington's disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, or Alzheimer's disease, are present.

Bulges or weak areas (aneurysms) or abnormal blood vessels (such as an AV malformation) are present.

What Affects the Test

Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:

  • Being pregnant. An MRI test is not usually done during pregnancy even though the strong magnetic field is not known to be harmful.
  • Having medical devices with metal. The MRI magnet may cause these devices to not work right or to have problems during an MRI scan. This test may not be done if you have:
  • Being unable to lie still during the test.

What To Think About

  • Sometimes your MRI results may be different from earlier test results because you were tested at a different medical center or you had a different kind of test.
  • Several special MRI methods have been developed to look at the brain.
    • Magnetic resonance spectroscopy shows changes in brain chemistry that may occur in certain areas of the brain. These changes may help show diseases that affect the brain.
    • Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) can be used to study blood vessels. Dye may be injected into the blood vessels so blood flow can be seen clearly. MRA can also be used to show the speed and direction of blood flow. For more information, see the topic Magnetic Resonance Angiogram (MRA).
    • Diffusion-perfusion imaging shows the water content and character of the brain. This method can give an early diagnosis of a stroke and may help predict the outcome of stroke. It can also be used to find tumors or inflammation of the brain.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.

  • Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2010). Mosby’s Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerPaul D. Traughber, MD - Diagnostic Radiology
Last RevisedDecember 9, 2010

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