MRI or X-Ray: What’s the Difference?

There is a misconception that when a doctor requests an MRI instead of an x-ray, that the problem is more serious. This is simply not true. An MRI gives the doctor a much clearer view of what is happening in the body. There is also no radiation involved with the MRI, so it is safer from that vantage point. However, it is more expensive than x-rays, and not always covered by insurance.

The MRI machine has many capabilities that an x-ray does not. It is can produce three dimensional pictures of the body and can also take images from any angle without moving the patient. They are perfectly suited to take images of the soft tissues of the body, where x-rays are commonly only used for broken bones. The details of broken bones are more obvious in an x-ray because the bones absorb the x-ray. An MRI is more versatile than the x-ray which can only be used for a examining a few conditions of the body. The small differences in soft tissues can also be seen on an MRI but not on an x-ray. X-rays will show metals object, though, and MRI’s will not.

The health risks of an MRI are fewer than those of an x-ray. X-rays expose people to radiation and MRI’s use radio waves to form the images. If a woman is pregnant, though, she needs to be sure her doctor is aware of this before having an MRI. The effects of an MRI on a fetus have not been studied enough to be considered safe. X-rays are not considered safe for fetuses, but precautions can be taken to protect the baby.

Doctors may order an MRI after an x-ray has shown a broken bone. If there is possible soft tissue damage, an MRI will show that damage. Ligament and tendon damage is not obvious on x-rays, but will show on an MRI image. Doctors need to know how much damage is done before deciding on treatment for injuries.

People who have had cancer or a history of tumors are often sent for MRI’s. These pictures can show nearly imperceptible changes in tumors and can help determine the best treatment. Any change in tumors can be seen. Each test has downfalls. The radiation produced by x-rays is just one. It can cause birth defects and disease. While the MRI has no radiation, people who suffer from claustrophobia (fear of enclosed places) cannot lay inside the machine without extreme anxiety. Even without the claustrophobia, many people find it nearly impossible to lay still for the length of the MRI. Some images take up to 90 minutes and the whole time, the patient is lying inside the tube. Small children cannot be still long enough. Some hospitals do offer open MRI machines that limit the enclosed area, but they are still difficult to be in.

If you have concerns about which procedure your doctor has ordered, be sure to ask questions. Understand completely why either the MRI or the x-ray has been ordered and why the doctor feels that is the best option for you.

Tito Jankowski lives in San Francisco. Find him on Twitter and . His latest direction is learning about health and blogging about MRI scans. He's quite the biotech explorer, including designing lab equipment like a blue light transilluminator and PCR machines, and co-founding BioCurious, the largest hackerspace for biotech.

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