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When Your Child Needs an MRI Scan

An MRI is a test that uses strong magnets and radio waves to form detailed images of the body. Your child lies in an MRI scanner while images are taken. The scanner is a long magnet with a tunnel in the center. An MRI scan is used to show problems with soft tissue (such as blood vessels), or with body parts that are hidden by bone (such as the brain). Most MRI tests take 30 to 60 minutes. Depending on the type of MRI your child is having, the test may take longer. Give yourself extra time to check your child in.

Before the test

  • Follow any directions your child is given for taking medicines and for not eating or drinking before the MRI scan.

  • Your child can follow a normal daily routine unless the healthcare provider tells you otherwise.

  • Make sure your child removes any makeup. Makeup may contain some metal.

  • Remove any metal objects such as watches, jewelry, hearing aids, eyeglasses, belts, clothing with zippers, or other types of metal objects from your child. These things may interfere with the MRI scanner's magnetic field. Dental braces and fillings aren’t a problem. But in some cases, MRI scans shouldn’t be done on children who have metal implants.

  • Remove ear (cochlear) implants before the MRI scan.

  • Make a list of all known implanted devices and any metal in your child's body. These include shrapnel or bullet fragments. Discuss these with your child’s healthcare provider and the MRI technologist. If there is any uncertainty, an X-ray may be taken of the affected body part to be sure.

  • Follow all other instructions given by your child's healthcare provider.

MRI uses strong magnets. Metal is affected by magnets and can distort the image. The magnets used in MRI can cause metal objects in your child's body to move. If your child has a metal implant, they may not be able to have an MRI.

People with these implants should not have an MRI:

  • Certain clips used for brain aneurysms

  • Certain metal coils put in blood vessels

  • Defibrillators

  • Ear (cochlear) implants

  • Pacemakers

Tell the radiologist or technologist if your child:

  • Has had previous surgery

  • Has a pacemaker, surgical clips, metal plate or pins, an artificial joint, staples or screws, ear (cochlear) implants, or other implants

  • Wears a medicated adhesive patch

  • Has metal splinters in their body

  • Has implanted nerve stimulators or medicine-infusion ports

  • Has tattoos or body piercings. Some tattoo inks contain metal and can become hot during the scan.

  • Has braces. Your child can still have an MRI, but the radiologist needs to know about them as they can affect image quality.

  • Has a bullet or other metal in their body

  • Has any health problems

  • Gets nervous or scared in small, enclosed spaces (claustrophobic)

Things to tell the healthcare provider

Tell the healthcare provider and the technician if your child:

  • Has ever had an imaging test such as an MRI or CT with contrast dye

  • Is allergic to contrast dye, iodine, shellfish, or any medicines

  • Has a serious health problem. This includes diabetes, kidney disease, or a liver transplant. Your child may not be able to have the contrast dye used for MRI.

  • Is pregnant or may be pregnant, or is breastfeeding

  • Has any implanted device or metal clips or pins in their body

During the test

An MRI scan is done by a radiology technologist. A radiologist is on call in case of problems. This is a doctor trained to use MRI or other imaging techniques to test or treat patients.

  • You can stay with your child in the testing room until the scanning begins.

  • Your child lies on a narrow table that slides into the MRI scanner.

  • Your child needs to keep still during the scan. Movement affects the quality of the results and can even require a repeat scan. Your child may be restrained or given medicine to relax (sedative). The sedative is taken by mouth or given through an IV (intravenous) line. A trained nurse often helps with this process. In rare cases, your child may be given medicine that makes your child sleep (anesthesia). You’ll be told more about this if needed.

  • A special contrast dye may be used for better images. If contrast dye is needed, it is often given by an IV line.

  • The technologist may put a coil over the body part being tested. The coil sends and receives radio waves and also helps make better images.

  • The technologist is nearby and watches your child through a window.

  • If awake, your child can speak to and hear the technologist through a speaker in the scanner.

  • Your child is given earplugs to block noise from the scanner.

Boy lying on back on scanner table. Healthcare provider is preparing to move table into circular opening of MRI scanner.

After the test

  • If a sedative was given, your child may be taken to a recovery room. It may take 1 to 2 hours for the medicine to wear off.

  • Unless told not to, your child can return to their normal routine and diet right away.

  • Any contrast dye your child was given should pass through the body in about 24 hours. The healthcare provider may tell you that your child needs to drink more water or other fluids during this time.

  • The MRI images are looked at by a radiologist, who may discuss early results with you. A report is sent to your child’s provider, who follows up with full results.

Helping your child get ready

You can help your child by getting ready in advance. How you do this depends on your child’s needs.

  • Explain the test to your child in brief and simple terms. Younger children have shorter attention spans, so do this shortly before the test. Older children can be given more time to understand the test in advance.

  • Make sure that your child knows what will happen during the procedure. For instance, tell your child that you will be leaving the room and that they will be alone. But reassure your child that they will be able to talk with you. Also describe what will happen—that your child will slide into the scanner, that it is a small space, and that the scanner noise will be very loud.

  • Make sure your child knows which body part or parts will be involved in the test.

  • As best you can, describe how the test will feel. The MRI scanner causes no pain. If your child needs to be sedated, an IV may be put into an arm. This may sting briefly. If awake, your child may become uncomfortable from lying still.

  • Allow your child to ask questions.

  • Use play when helpful. This can include role-playing with a child’s favorite toy or object. It may help older children to see pictures of what happens during the test.

  Possible risks and complications of MRI

  • Allergic reaction such as hives, itching, or wheezing, from the MRI IV contrast dye (or very rarely, an illness called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis)

  • Problems with undetected metal implants

  • Reaction to sedative or anesthesia. This can include headaches, shivering, and vomiting.

Online Medical Reviewer: Dan Brennan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Neil Grossman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Tara Novick BSN MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2022
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