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MRI of the Head/Brain: Purpose, Preparation And Procedure

Are you due to have a brain MRI scan soon? Wondering what you can expect from the procedure? Are you unsure of what you can do to prepare for your scan?

A brain scan is a harmless and painless procedure used to diagnose potential abnormalities or health conditions found within the brain. Diagnosing problems within the brain can be extremely difficult, but thankfully, an MRI is a safe way for medical staff to diagnose and determine any problems non-invasively.

Take a look below to find out the purpose of a brain scan, what you need to do to prepare, and the exact procedure you can expect.

How Do Brain MRIs Work?

A brain scan is a useful technical procedure for medical staff to check on your the structures in your skull without the need for exploratory surgery. As with most medical procedures, an MRI can be nerve-wracking, but try not to panic as the procedure is painless and surprisingly straightforward.

When you enter the machine, your body will be exposed to an extremely powerful magnetic field, which will realign your body’s hydrogen protons. But don’t worry, you won’t feel anything at all, and there will be no chemical changes within your body.

Throughout the procedure, the machine will rotate around your body, which will cause your hydrogen protons to shift back to their starting positions. They will in turn release energy that the machine can pick up on and transform into images.

The machine will send the images back to a computer via radio waves, which is how it produces incredibly detailed pictures of your brain and internal structure. These images can then be used to help diagnose and pinpoint any potential medical conditions.

Although this all may sound futuristic, especially due to the use of magnetic fields, an MRI scan is a commonplace procedure as it is the most sensitive imaging test available in the medical industry.

Why Might You Need A MRI?

There are a range of reasons why your doctor might suggest an MRI brain scan or why they may be considering using an MRI scanner. The main reason, however, is to determine if there are any visible issues occurring within the brain.

One of the most common uses of an MRI is to find any tumours or lumps on the brain and spinal cord. As it is extremely hard to check the brain without imaging software, MRI scanning is one of the most useful tools available when it comes to diagnosing any brain issues.

A magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain can also show any physical damage, such as burst blood vessels, or even structural abnormalities you may not be aware of. An MRI exam is truly be one of the best ways a doctor can check on and monitor the health of your brain.

What A Brain MRI Can Show

The main focus of an MRI machine is to scan the brain, or other parts of the body, to produce MRI images. These can show a range of internal issues that can be extremely hard to spot without this technology.

MRI machines are able to accurately depict images from inside the body thanks to their use of radio waves. Whether that’s a burst blood vessel on the brain or potential tumour growth, an MRI can save lives if it spots something that needs medical attention.

Below are a few medical issues an MRI may find when used to scan your spinal cord and your brain:

  • Brain cysts and tumours
  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Structural and developmental abnormalities
  • Swelling of the brain
  • Bleeding
  • Spinal conditions associated with the brain

There are a range of other potential problems that an MRI can highlight. If you are worried at all that you may have a medical condition caused by an issue relating to the brain, then you may want to talk to your doctor about a magnetic resonance imaging scan.

How Do You Prepare For A Head MRI?

Although a brain scan can be fairly lengthy and may seem like it’s something you need to prepare for, there truly isn’t much you need to do. Luckily, most scans won’t have any specific requirements before you proceed to the machine.

Depending on your current medical requirements though, you may need to refrain from eating for up to six hours before an MRI. However, this is usually only for scans relating to the abdominal region and will rarely be required when it comes to a head MRI.

If you are claustrophobic or you are uncomfortable in small spaces, then be sure to talk to your doctor before the scan commences. There are methods they can use to help you get through an MRI scan if it is something you are nervous about.

Naturally as you are going to be exposed to a powerful magnetic field, all jewellery will need to be removed and you will be provided with a safety questionnaire where it is imperative you answer truthfully and honestly.

What To Expect From A MRI Procedure

Before the scan

Almost all MRI procedures will proceed in the exact same way. However, you may want to talk to your doctor before entering the machine to set your mind at rest.

The very first thing you will usually be asked to do is to fill in a safety questionnaire. This is so the clinic knows exactly what steps to take to ensure your scan proceeds safely and that you are comfortable.

To start the procedure, your doctor may supply you with a change of clothes, to ensure that your current clothing doesn’t interfere with the process. You will also be asked to remove all metallic devices such as watches and piercings. Once appropriately dressed, the technologist will then ask you to enter the scanning machine.

There are sometimes different steps that the doctor may take before an MRI that you should be aware of. Depending on what they are searching for, the hospital may require the use of a contrast dye to help highlight blood vessels and tissue.

You may also be prescribed a slight sedative if you suffer from claustrophobia to help get through the scanning procedure. The sedative can last for up to twenty-four hours so make sure you don’t drive or operate heavy machinery during that time.

During the scan

The scanning procedure itself is completely painless, and will rarely last longer than ninety minutes in total, with most MRI scans lasting between thirty to forty-five minutes. This time will depend on the detail of the images produced and which part of the body the scans are being focused on.

When entering the machine, the technologist will advise whether to go head or feet first. However, during most brain scans, they will naturally ask you to go head first so that you are completely within the machine before the scan starts.

Inside the machine, you can be seen at all times by the technicians who are currently scanning you. You will also have access to an intercom or similar communication device so you can talk to the hospital staff and let them know how you are feeling.

You may also be allowed a family member in the room with you, however, if they own a pacemaker or other internal metallic object, they may not be allowed in the room.

As opposed to a single long scan, the scanning process is usually split up into several two to three-minute scans. During these shorter scans, you will be asked to remain as still as possible. In the case of a brain scan, they will ask that you try to keep your head steady during each short scan.


How long does an MRI of the brain take?

Your typical brain scan will usually take around thirty to forty-five minutes depending on what the doctors are looking for. However, in certain cases, a brain scan could take over an hour if they are looking for highly detailed images. 

Why would a neurologist order a brain MRI? 

If a neurologist is under the impression that there may be an abnormality associated with your brain, then they may order an MRI. As an MRI can be used to check the brain without surgery, it can help spot potential issues before they become a larger problem. 

When a neurologist orders a brain MRI, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a problem within your brain. It just means they want to check on the health of your brain or spinal cord, so try not to panic.

What is the follow-up procedure for a head MRI?

Once you have finished your magnetic resonance scan, you may need to wait for your neurologist or the MRI technician to check whether you need another scan. In some cases, there may be additional scans needed for the imaging to produce detailed results. 

Typically, once you have exited the machine, there isn’t a specific set of rules you need to follow. Unless your doctor specifically says otherwise, you can usually eat and get on with your day as normal.

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