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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain is a safe and painless test that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed images of the brain and the brain stem. An MRI differs from a CAT scan (also called a CT scan or a computed axial tomography scan) because it does not use radiation.

An MRI scan is different from a CT scan or an X-ray in that it doesn?t use radiation to produce images. An MRI scan combines images to create a 3-D picture of your internal structures, so it?s more effective than other scans at detecting abnormalities in small structures of the brain such as the pituitary gland and brain stem. Sometimes a contrast agent, or dye, can be given through an intravenous (IV) line to better visualize certain structures or abnormalities.


The medical staff will need to know if you have any metal in your body, including:

  • inner ear implants
  • artificial joints
  • a defibrillator or pacemaker
  • particular types of heart valves
  • vascular stents
  • brain aneurysm clips

They?ll also ask whether you?ve ever worked with sheet metal or been injured with metal shrapnel. All of these things can affect how safely you can undergo an MRI. In the case of implants and pacemakers, those items can stop working properly due to an MRI?s powerful magnetic field.

If you?re wearing anything that contains metal, including jewelry or sunglasses, you will need to remove those items. Metal interferes with the MRI machine?s ability to produce a clear image. Braces and dental fillings typically won?t pose a problem, but pocketknives, pens, pins, and certain dental appliances can interfere. The staff may ask you to wear a hospital gown or clothing that doesn?t contain metal fasteners. You can?t have electronic devices in the MRI room.

Tell the medical staff if you?re pregnant. An MRI?s magnetic field affects unborn children in a way that isn?t yet fully understood.

Additionally, it?s important to let the staff know if you have claustrophobia. If so, you might need to take sedatives during the exam or have an ?open? MRI. Open MRI machines have wider tunnels, which tend to be more tolerable for claustrophobic patients.


The MRI machine looks like a long narrow tube that has both ends open. You lie down on a movable table that slides into the opening of the tube. A technologist monitors you from another room. You can talk with the person by microphone.

If you have a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), you might be given a drug to help you feel sleepy and less anxious. Most people get through the exam without difficulty.

The MRI machine creates a strong magnetic field around you, and radio waves are directed at your body. The procedure is painless. You don't feel the magnetic field or radio waves, and there are no moving parts around you.

During the MRI scan, the internal part of the magnet produces repetitive tapping, thumping and other noises. You might be given earplugs or have music playing to help block the noise.

In some cases, a contrast material, typically gadolinium, will be injected through an intravenous (IV) line into a vein in your hand or arm. The contrast material enhances certain details. Gadolinium rarely causes allergic reactions.

An MRI can last anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour. You must hold still because movement can blur the resulting images.

During a functional MRI, you might be asked to perform a number of small tasks ? such as tapping your thumb against your fingers, rubbing a block of sandpaper or answering simple questions. This helps pinpoint the portions of your brain that control these actions.


If you haven't been sedated, you can resume your usual activities immediately after the scan.

Testing time

The test normally takes 30 to 60 minutes. You may receive a contrast solution, usually gadolinium, through an IV to allow the MRI machine to see certain parts of your brain more easily, particularly your blood vessels. The MRI scanner will make loud banging noises during the procedure.

Report delivery time

The results from an MRI scan are typically interpreted within 24 hours, and the scans themselves are usually given immediately to the patient on a disc after the MRI is complete.

Result explanation

A doctor specially trained to interpret MRIs (radiologist) will analyze the images from your scan and report the findings to your doctor. Your doctor will discuss important findings and next steps with you.


An MRI scanner can be used to take images of any part of the body (e.g., head, joints, abdomen, legs, etc.), in any imaging direction. MRI provides better soft tissue contrast than CT and can differentiate better between fat, water, muscle, and other soft tissue than CT (CT is usually better at imaging bones). These images provide information to physicians and can be useful in diagnosing a wide variety of diseases and conditions.

Global facts

MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to collect images. That?s why items made of metal and devices that emit radio waves are not allowed anywhere near and MRI scanner.

  • The main magnet in an MRI can create a magnetic field that is one to four thousand times stronger than the earth?s magnetic field.
  • The magnets used in MRI scanners must be cooled to a temperature of absolute zero. This cooling is typically done with liquid hydrogen.
  • MRI scans are often used to identify tumors or bone fractures that are too small for x-ray. MRI scans are ideal for orthopedic, neurological, and vascular imaging, but can be used for other diagnoses as well.
  • Unlike X-ray or CT scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging does not use ionizing radiation. This makes MRI a popular alternative to scans that do use radiation.
  • An MRI scan can take as little as 10 minutes or as long 2 hours. The duration depends on the specific purpose of the MRI scan.
  • Japan has the highest number of MRI units per capita, with 43.1 units per million people. The United States comes in second place with 25.9 MRI units per million population.

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