What is Magnetic Resonance Imaging?

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a safe and painless type of imaging exam that uses a large magnet, radio waves and a computer to create detailed images of the inside of your child's body. An MRI differs from a CAT scan because it doesn’t use radiation.

Doctors use MRI images to help them determine if there is an injury, infection, inflammation, or possible disorders of tissues, including identifying the presence of tumors. MRI provides the doctor with high resolution pictures of the body that are full of detail. These images allow the doctor to differentiate between types of tissues, organs, bones, air, fluid, and blood flow that may not be easily seen with other types of imaging exams.

How to Prepare for an MRI

You will receive specific instructions prior to your child’s appointment. Typically, there is no special preparation needed for this test, but below are a few tips and common questions to help prepare for the exam.

  • Take time to talk to your child and explain the test. Reassure them they’ll be safe and comfortable.
    • For preschoolers, it’s best to discuss the day of the scan.
    • For school-aged children, it’s best to discuss two to three days before.
    • For adolescents, it's best to discuss one to two weeks before.
  • MRI exams take more time than X-ray or CT scan times and can range anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour for each body part being imaged.
    • You can practice what holding still feels like by having your child lay on a flat surface and holding still by playing freeze or pretending to be a statue.
    • Sometimes it can be difficult for a child to lay still for the entire length of an MRI; movement during the study can ruin the images. Not all children are able to lie still for the whole study. When this happens, your doctor may decide to order the MRI exam under general anesthesia.
  • Bring a comfort item, such as a stuffed animal, toy or blanket to use during waiting times or in the imaging room.
  • If your child requires sedation, you will receive additional instructions before the scan.

Yes, your child should continue to take their usual medications as prescribed by their doctor before the MRI, unless you receive other instructions from your doctor or nurse.

  • Look: The MRI machine is a big tube. It is a circular-shaped camera with openings on each end of the table. The table moves in and out of the opening - just like a tunnel. During an MRI, your child will lie on the table and the table will move into the opening while we take the images.  
  • Sound: When the MRI is in the process of taking pictures, it produces loud noises that will change throughout the exam. These can sound like knocking, banging, humming, beeping, or tapping. To help better prepare your child for what kind of noises they will be hearing during the MRI, you can compare the noise to sounds that they may already be familiar with hearing in everyday life. Some of the noises sound like a repetitive train, motorcycle, drumbeat, frog ribbit, or even a horse galloping. Check out our sound clips to hear what kind of noises the MRI makes while taking pictures. Some of the noises sound like a repetitive train, motorcycle, drumbeat, frog ribbit, or even a horse galloping. Check out our sound clips to hear what kind of noises the MRI makes while taking pictures: 

    During the MRI, we will give your child earplugs and headphones to wear to help muffle the noise. For some exams, your child will be able to listen to music through headphones or even watch a movie while having their MRI.  

  • Feel: Your child can be assured that MRI exams are not painful. They will lie on a padded table and will be given warm blankets and padding for comfort. They may feel a pinch if an IV is given. 

What to Expect During an MRI

It’s totally natural for your child to be a little nervous but knowing what to expect during the MRI can help. Our child life specialists can work with children of all ages and parents to help prepare your child and to help alleviate any anxiety so that your child has the best experience possible. Here’s what your child can expect during the MRI:

After you check in for the MRI, you will be provided a screening form to complete. This form must be filled out to go into the MRI room to make sure that it is safe for your child to have an MRI.

The MRI is a large magnet, so it’s not safe to have metal around it, and some implanted devices may not enter the MRI suite for the safety of your child.

  • Before entering the MRI room, all metal items and jewelry will need to be removed so it is best to leave these items at home.
  • Some medical devices, like shunts, rods, and nerve stimulators, are made of different types of metal. If your child has any of these in their body, it is extremely important to include on the MRI screening form, and to tell the MRI technologist before your child’s MRI.
  • Most medical devices are considered safe for MRI. 

Some materials are not safe to wear during an MRI so every patient is required to change into a hospital gown as a safety precaution. 

If your child’s exam is ordered with contrast dye or gadolinium, a nurse will place an IV in one of your child’s veins. The contrast used for an MRI scan is not the same contrast that is used for CT or X-ray imaging.

  • If your child has ever had a reaction or allergy to a contrast agent used for MRI, please tell your child’s nurse, doctor, and the technologist before the MRI begins.

If your child is not receiving general anesthesia for the MRI, you may sit in the room with your child, after being screened by an MRI technologist. Please let the MRI technologist know if you are pregnant before you enter the MRI room. If your child is receiving general anesthesia, you will be asked to wait in the radiology waiting area during the MRI exam.

After the MRI exam, you will be able to sit with your child in the post-anesthesia care unit.  When the MRI is over, the technologist or nurse will remove the IV (if one was used).

The MRI images will be sent to a radiologist to make a report of the findings, and the report will be sent to the ordering physician. This process may take one to three business days and results will be provided to your referring doctor. Please note: MRI staff are not able to provide information or report on the findings.