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Breast MRI Scan: Purpose, Preparation And Procedure

A Breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a test that is carried out to detect abnormalities in the breast tissue as well as presence of cancerous cells leading to tumour growth.

For example, it is often used if a biopsy tests positive for cancer in order to discover the extent of the disease, or in conjunction with mammography as part of a screening process to detect breast cancer.

This type of scan can also be recommended for people who have a family history of cancer to perform a more thorough check.

How Do Breast MRI Scans Work?

An MRI creates a strong magnetic field around the patient’s body. The nuclei of your body’s atoms are then knocked out of position by the magnetic force.

As the nuclei return to their positions, radio signals are sent out and received by the computer, which analyses the information it receives and creates a detailed picture of the tissue within the breast.

Why Might You Need A Breast MRI?

There are a number of reasons your doctor may request magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Here are some of the most common causes;

  • You have newly diagnosed breast cancer, and your doctor or health care provider needs to determine the extent of the disease in order to formulate the best treatment plan.
  • You have a damaged or faulty breast implant that may be ruptured or leaking.
  • You have a family history of breast cancer and are determined to be at risk of developing cancer
  • Dense breast tissue making the detection of cancer difficult when using mammograms.
  • You have a history of lobular carcinoma in situ, atypical hyperplasia, or other precancerous breast changes.
  • Prior to the age of 30, you have undergone radiation treatments to your chest.
  • You have Breast cancer type 1 or 2 susceptibility protein, a hereditary breast cancer gene such as BRCA.

How To Prepare For Your Breast MRI Exam

You will be fully briefed on how to prepare for your breast MRI, but here are some of the most essential steps that will need to be taken;

  • Advise your healthcare provider of any allergies you may have. The majority of MRI procedures will use a dye that is given through the arm, and this helps to make images easier to see.
  • Advise your healthcare provider of any kidney problems you may have. Gadolinium, the dye used in MRIs, can cause problems for people with kidney complications.
  • Advise your healthcare provider if you are pregnant. The use of gadolinium during pregnancy should be kept to a minimum, although according to the European Society of Radiology, it is probably safe due to the low amount likely to cross the placenta.
  • Advise your healthcare provider if you are breastfeeding. If you have concerns regarding the risk of breastfeeding after an MRI, speak to your healthcare provider. It is advised that the risk from gadolinium is low, but it is possible to pump and store breast milk prior to your MRI.
  • Advise the facility where you are in your menstrual cycle. Some facilities prefer MRI’s for premenopausal women to take place at a particular time near the start of the cycle. They will be able to advise further on this.
  • Advise the facility of any implanted medical devices. If you have a pacemaker, artificial joint, defibrillator, or any other implanted medical advice, advise your healthcare provider and the facility prior to your MRI.
  • Remove metallic objects before your MRI. All jewellery, watches, hairpins, and other metallic objects must be removed before entering an MRI scanner.

What To Expect

Any medical procedure or examination can be daunting; however, understanding what to expect will help to put your mind at ease.

On arrival, you will be asked to change into a robe, advised on what clothing will have to be removed, and asked to remove any jewellery.

Prior to going into the MRI machine, you may be injected intravenously with dye which will make the pictures generated clearer to interpret.

You can also advise the team if you have concerns about confined spaces. In some cases, a mild sedative can be given to make the process easier for you.

During the scan

When you are ready to go into the MRI machine, you will lie down on the padded screening table. There is a hollow depression that your breasts will fit into it that contains the coils to detect the magnetic signals.

The machine can be loud and make thumping sounds, so you may have to wear earplugs. You will not be able to feel the magnetic field or the radio waves that are generated.

It usually takes between half an hour to an hour to complete, and you will be able to communicate with the technician in the monitoring room via a small microphone.

Although it may feel awkward, it is essential that during your MRI that you breathe as normal and remain as still as possible.

After the scan

After your MRI, you will be able to resume your regular activities and diet immediately. If you were sedated, a short recovery period will probably be necessary to allow the sedative to wear off.

Once your scan is complete, a radiologist will then be able to interpret the results before sending a report to your healthcare provider. They will then be able to share the results with you.

Infrequently, some patients may experience side effects or an allergic reaction to the dye used, with symptoms including nausea, hives, or itchy eyes. Physicians will be present though to assist with any reactions.

Follow up exams are common to examine potential issues further or to check the success of any breast cancer treatment that is being undertaken.

What Are The Benefits Of Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)?

As a non-invasive technique, an MRI means there is no recovery time needed, so you will be able to get back to your daily routine quickly and easily. It will not expose you to any radiation, making it a much safer option than X-rays.

When compared to other methods healthcare professionals use to attain images such as breast ultrasound and mammography, MRI can provide much more precise results. This is a great option to have when testing high-risk patients for breast cancer.

It is an incredibly useful and versatile option since it can be used on breast implants and very dense breast tissue too.

Although there is a risk of a reaction to the gadolinium contrast material, this risk is significantly lower than that of traditional iodine-based contrast materials used typically for X-rays and CT scans.


Is a breast MRI better than a mammogram?

A breast MRI is much more sensitive than a mammogram and can produce images which are infinitely more detailed. They can be used to screen and find cancer much sooner than a mammogram can, and they can also be used to rule out abnormalities more easily.

An MRI may be recommended after a mammogram if the results are unclear or abnormalities need to be checked.

Why would a doctor order a breast MRI?

If a doctor diagnoses positive breast cancer in a patient, an MRI will determine the severity of the condition. It can also be used to screen women that are at high risk, and is an excellent way of checking abnormalities that may come up in a mammogram.

Your healthcare provider will take into account your family history when it comes to breast cancer in order to better understand your lifetime risk of developing the disease.

How long does a breast MRI take?

Typically the MRI itself should take no longer than an hour to complete, and results usually take between one and two weeks to come through. You can always check at the time though to see if you can be given a more precise timescale.

Staying as still as possible and regulating your breathing during a breast MRI is an extremely important factor in being able to get the best quality and clearest breast imaging. Be aware that this can have an impact on the length of time the scan may take.

Is a breast MRI uncomfortable?

Though the MRI itself is not painful, you will be required to stay as still as possible and regulate your breathing in order to get the best image possible. Some people can find lying still in an enclosed space difficult.

If you struggle with confined spaces, you may require a light sedative, so it is a good idea to discuss this prior to having your MRI.

You will also have an injection of the MRI contrast material, gadolinium. This is either injected prior to the scan or during it by using an IV. This can be uncomfortable and result in some bruising after it has been removed.

Why are MRI exams recommended after being diagnosed with breast cancer?

It is essential for your doctor to get as much information as possible about cancer so they can best understand how to treat it. They will be able to determine whether cancer has spread and check both breasts for tumours.

A breast MRI prior to surgery will help the surgeon understand exactly what they are doing without the need for exploratory surgery. This will in turn result in a more efficient treatment.

An MRI can also be a vital tool to check how well treatments such as chemotherapy are working, and to distinguish between recurrent tumours and scar tissue.