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Wrist MRI Scan

The wrist is a complex joint that has the ability to lift, twist, grip and more, thanks to its vast number of joints, bones and muscles. Because of the high number of skeletal and soft tissue structures in the wrist, it’s very common for related injuries to occur.

While an x-ray is commonly used to detect broken bones in the area, MRIs are used to identify issues related to the soft tissues. Wrist MRIs are commonly used to provide comprehensive images that allow a technician to diagnose a variety of conditions.

A wrist MRI can help a radiologist discover what the issue is and, consequently, assist them to make a diagnosis and help them to determine the best treatment plan for a wrist injury or condition.

How do wrist MRI scans work?

A wrist MRI scan is an imaging test that generates detailed images of the area. They work by sending magnetic and radiofrequency waves into the wrist area which captures photos. These photos are actually cross-sectional images that are taken in quick succession. Once the images are captured, they can be joined together to create a 3D image.

Because the image is so detailed, a physician is able to identify conditions that aren’t evident in a traditional X-ray. This non-invasive scan can capture bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and even blood vessels.

Unlike X-rays, an MRI doesn’t use radiation. Instead, it harnesses radiowaves from data that already exists in the body, meaning it won’t cause chemical change or damage to tissue.

These scans are taken when a patient is inside an MRI machine. A technician will adjust a patient so that they are lying in a position where the image can be correctly captured.

Why might you need a wrist MRI?

If a doctor suspects an issue with a ligament or tendon in the wrist, they will often suggest an MRI to confirm their suspicions. However, wrist MRIs can detect far more than just ligament and tendon injuries or tears. Below are some conditions an ankle MRI can detect:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Breaks and fractures of the carpal bones

  • Damage to the ulnar collateral ligament

  • Distal radioulnar joint instability

  • Tendon tears

  • Ligament tears

  • Tendinopathy

  • Tenosynovitis

  • Ganglia

  • Tendon sheath inflammation

  • Ulnar nerve injuries

  • Scaphoid waist fractures

  • Bone infections

  • Distal carpal row

  • Fluid build up

If you are experiencing any of the following issues, you may be referred for a wrist MRI.

  • Loss of feeling in your wrist

  • pins and needles in your wrist

  • Lack of mobility

  • Wrist pain or discomfort when the knee is moved a particular way

  • A popping sensation or feeling in the wrist

  • As a check-up after wrist surgery

  • Acute wrist pain that’s developed suddenly

How to prepare for your wrist MRI scan

A wrist MRI is a non-invasive procedure, so there usually isn’t anything specific you need to do to prepare for the scan. A patient will almost always have to be referred to have a wrist MRI, so they should have already discussed their condition or symptoms with a physician or surgeon.

When a patient is having an MRI, it’s very important that all metal objects are removed. Metal objects can block the scan, and they can also heat up during the scan. So, to streamline the actual scan, it’s a good idea to remove these objects before you head into the clinic.

Patients should remove items like jewellery, a watch and hairpins. If you have a surgically implanted device that’s made of metal, like a pacemaker or implanted hearing device, then you should let the technician know before beginning the scan.

While not common with a wrist MRI, some technicians will use a contrast dye. This dye can help produce clearer images and help doctors detect certain issues. If your physician uses a contrast agent, they will likely administer it via IV or as a barium meal. In this case, they may ask you to reframe from eating food for a certain time before the scan. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to check with your referring doctor whether there are any special preparation rules you must abide by prior to your scan.

What To Expect from your wrist MRI scan

During the scan

When you arrive at your MRI appointment, you will usually check in at the reception like a normal appointment. Once the doctor is ready for you, you will be taken through to the scanning room. Here, you’ll find a tube-shaped MRI machine that is used for the scan.

The technician or nurse may give you a hospital gown to change into. Once you’re dressed for the scan, you’ll be asked to lay on a thin metal table, and the technician will manipulate your wrist so that the scan can correctly capture the area. They will also equip you with earplugs and a buzzer. When the buzzer is pressed, you will be able to communicate with the technician while you are inside the scanner.

Once the technician is happy with your position, they will slide you inside the MRI machine. It’s dark and can be quite noisy inside the machine, so don’t be alarmed. If you are claustrophobic, you should let your technician know before, and they may decide to administer a sedative to help you relax.

The scan itself should only take a few minutes, and once it’s over the technician will slide you out of the machine. They will usually check to make sure the images are clear before removing you.

After this, you should be finished and able to leave and continue your day as per usual. The exception to this is if you were administered a sedative – in this case, you may need some recovery time and will need someone to drive you home.

After the scan

Because an MRI is a non-invasive process, you should feel normal after finishing your scan. However, in rare cases, patients can have allergic reactions, so if you notice any allergy-related symptoms, like a rash or red skin, then you should let a doctor know immediately.

Usually, MRI results take around a week to come back. Though the images are ready immediately, a doctor needs time to analyse them and diagnose the condition. If they suspect the condition is urgent, they can order the results to be returned more quickly.

Someone from the doctor’s office will organise a follow-up appointment for you to come in and have the doctor explain the results to you and implement a treatment plan.

What are the benefits of wrist magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)?

Wrist MRIs are an advanced imaging technique that can identify many conditions that a traditional x-ray isn’t able to. Below are some reasons why wrist scans are commonly used.

  • The preciseness of an MRI means that they can pick up very small abnormalities that may not otherwise be evident.
  • MRIs are non-invasive and don’t involve any radiation, meaning they are a very safe procedure.
  • They can identify issues with soft tissues within the shoulder, which traditional x-rays can’t.
  • The results are quick, which can mean that treatment can be started quickly.

Other common MRI scans

Head or brain MRI scan

Cervical MRI scan

Prostate MRI scan

Breast MRI scan

Knee MRI scan

Shoulder MRI scan

Cardiac MRI scan

Ankle MRI scan

Liver MRI scan

Hamstring MRI scan

Abdominal MRI scan

Back MRI scan


Why would a doctor order an MRI for your wrist?

MRIs are almost always ordered by a referring physician. So, the patient should have already discussed their symptoms with a doctor. If a doctor suspects that your issue is something an MRI can detect, like an ailment related to a ligament or tendon, then they will likely refer you for a wrist MRI.

How long does a wrist MRI take?

The actual process of the scan should only take a few minutes. However, patients should set aside 60-90 minutes for their appointment. This includes waiting time, a consultation and preparation time.

What does a wrist MRI show?

A wrist MRI shows bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles and soft tissues (like a tumour). It is a complex scan that is able to identify a large number of conditions, as listed above.

Is a wrist MRI uncomfortable?

A wrist MRI should be relatively pain-free. A patient should feel the scan itself at all. However, if the wrist is injured and needs to be manipulated in a certain way so that a technician can capture the image properly, then the positioning itself may cause slight discomfort. If you feel any pain at all – or even moderate discomfort – then you should let your technician know straight away.

Some patients feel an element of discomfort from the MRI machine itself because it’s dark and noisy. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you should let your referring doctor know. They may decide to administer a sedative for the scan to help you relax.

Will a doctor automatically recommend an MRI if I have wrist pain?

No, a doctor will never automatically recommend an MRI. They will always speak to you about your symptoms and will likely conduct a physical exam of your wrist injuries and/or conditions. From here, they will decide if they suspect an issue that can be detected on an MRI. If so, they will refer you for an MRI of the wrist.