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When Your Child Needs a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Scan

Magnetic resonance imaging (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). The time needed for the scan depends on what parts of the body need to be imaged.

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

Before the Scan

  • Don’t give your child anything to eat or drink 4 to 6 hours before the scan. In some cases, you may be told that your child doesn’t need to fast.

  • Remove any metal objects (such as glasses, belts, or clothing with zippers) from your child’s body. These things may interfere with the MRI scanner’s magnetic field. Dental braces and fillings aren’t a problem. But in many cases, MRI scans shouldn't be done on children with metal implants in their bodies. Children with cochlear implants in the ear also should not have MR scans. Make a list of all known implanted devices and any metal in your child's body — for example, shrapnel or bullet fragments. Discuss these with your child's doctor and with the MR technologist. If there is any uncertainty, an X-ray may be taken of the involved body part to be sure. 


Let the Technologist Know

For your child’s safety, let the technologist know if your child:

  • Has metal implants (such as pacemakers or surgical clips).

  • Wears a medicated adhesive patch.

  • Has had previous surgery.

  • Has any health problems.

  • Gets nervous or scared in enclosed spaces.

During the Scan

An MRI scan is performed 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 a sedative (medication that makes your child relax or sleep). The sedative is taken by mouth or given through an intravenous (IV) line. A trained nurse often helps with this process. In rare cases, anesthesia (medication that makes your child sleep) is also used. You’ll be told more about this if needed.

  • Contrast material, a special dye, may be used to improve image results. Your child is given contrast material by mouth or an IV line.

  • A coil may be placed over the body part being tested. The coil sends and receives radio waves and also helps improve image results.

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

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

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

After the Scan

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

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

  • Any contrast material your child is given should pass through the body in about 24 hours.

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

Helping Your Child Prepare

You can help your child by preparing him or her 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 he or she will be alone. But reassure your child that he or she will be able to communicate. Also describe what will happen — that your child will slide into the scanner, and that the scanner noise will be very loud. 

  • Make sure your child understands which body part(s) 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 inserted into the 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 involve 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

  • Problems with undetected metal implants

  • Reaction (such as headaches, shivering, and vomiting) to sedative or anesthesia

  • Allergic reaction (such as hives, itching, or wheezing) to contrast material


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