What Are the Differences Between MRI With and Without Contrast?

If you want your doctor to develop a treatment plan that is appropriate for you, your doctor needs to have all the necessary information. There might be some situations where your doctor might order an MRI. An MRI is a magnetic resonance image. This is one of the most popular Imaging scans, and your doctor might need to order it to collect more information to figure out what to do next. An MRI generates an image using a giant magnet. Then, based on how different tissues respond to the magnet, an image is generated on the screen.

There are a number of advantages that come with ordering an MRI. It is an incredibly detailed image, it does not use any radiation, and it can highlight certain issues that other images might not catch. At the same time, your doctor will have to specify whether he or she wants the MRI with contrast or without contrast. What is a contrast agent, and why might a doctor order an MRI with contrast? 

Many MRI Scans Are Ordered Without Contrast

First, it is important to understand that a doctor is only going to order an MRI with contrast if it is absolutely necessary. It isn't that a contrast agent is inherently risky, but it simply represents an extra step and expense that should be avoided if possible. 

There are a number of reasons why a doctor may order an MRI scan without contrast. If the doctor wants to take a look at blood vessels, possible aneurysms, or clogs in your cardiovascular system, then your doctor probably will not order an MRI with contrast. Contrast is not necessary for all of these situations.

Furthermore, the doctor may decide to forgo contrast for people that should not be exposed to a contrast agent. For example, if your kidneys are compromised, or if you are pregnant, then a contrast agent is probably not recommended.

This is just a general overview of MRI scans that might not require contrast. This is something that is always handled on a case-by-case basis, and you need to talk about this with your doctor before he or she orders the scan. 

What Is a Contrast Agent?

A contrast agent is usually ordered if a doctor wants a more detailed look at certain parts of your body. There are numerous types of contrast agents out there, all of them are designed to light up on the scan. That way, the doctor can use the contrast agent to get a better outline of the areas that have been exposed to the contrast agent.

Generally, the contrast agents are administered intravenously. This means that the doctor may place an IV before administering a contrast agent. It will take some time for the contrast agent to go throughout your body, so there might be a delay between the contrast agent and when the scan begins.

Why Is a Contrast Agent Required?

There are several common situations in which the doctor may order an MRI scan with contrast. Some of the biggest examples include:

  • The doctor may want to get a better look at areas of inflammation within your joint. This is called an arthrogram, and the contrast agent might be injected directly into the joint in this situation.
  • If the doctor wants to get a better look at a tumor in your body, or if the doctor is concerned that a tumor might be present, then a contrast agent might be ordered. This is particularly common if other imaging scans, such as a CT scan or an MRI, have not shown the necessary level of detail.
  • If the doctor wants to get a detailed look at one of the solid organs in your body, then he or she may order an MRI with contrast. The contrast agent will flow throughout the organ, showing the doctor what he or she needs to see.

Again, this is something that is handled on a case-by-case basis. There are additional situations where an MRI with contrast might be required. Your doctor will talk about this with you before the scan begins. 

What Are the Benefits and Risks?

Before you agree to an MRI with contrast, it is important to understand the benefits and risks. There are a lot of benefits that come with an MRI with contrast. An MRI is already a detailed image, but the contrast agent, such as gadolinium, can show certain structures and tissues that might not otherwise be visible on the image. This gives your doctor access to more information that he or she might require to make treatment decisions.

On the other hand, you need to understand the risks that come with using a contrast agent. Many contrast agents, such as gadolinium, are filtered by the kidneys. Therefore, if you have kidney damage, an MRI with contrast might not be the best idea. 

Furthermore, there are some people who have allergic reactions to contrast agents. Some of the most common symptoms of allergic reactions include swelling, difficulty breathing, hives, and vomiting. If you have a history of adverse reactions to contrast agents, you need to let your doctor know. That way, your doctor can find a different imaging modality, or your doctor may decide to use a different contrast agent.

How Long Does the Procedure Take?

The exact length of the procedure depends on the type of MRI that has been ordered. For example, if your doctor has ordered an MRI of the entire body, then it may take a few hours. If your doctor has only ordered an MRI of a single body part, that may take approximately a half-hour.

If the doctor decides to order an MRI with contrast, it will take some time to administer the contrast. Then, the doctor will need to wait for contrast agents to flow throughout your body before the imaging scan can begin. Therefore, an MRI with contrast usually takes longer.

Talk With Your Doctor About an MRI With or Without Contrast

If your doctor needs to get a better look at the inside of your body, then he or she may decide to order an imaging scan, such as an MRI. There are some situations where the scan is ordered with contrast and some situations where the scan is ordered without contrast. At Doctor Wagner, we always take the time to explain the benefits and drawbacks of each option to our patients. That way, we can guide them as they make the best decisions for their health. If you would like to learn more about MRIs, contact us today to schedule an appointment! 

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