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Brain Injuries

What is an MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) scan?

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How can an MRI scan help after a brain injury?

An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of what is happening inside the body. MRI scans are often used to examine bones, joints, hearts and blood vessels, as well as other internal organs for damage following an injury.

More specifically, MRI scans are also used to check for damage to the brain that has been caused by a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). TBIs are often referred to as an ‘invisible’ injury, because they’re not visible externally, making it hard to understand the extent and effects of the damage.

That’s why an MRI is a useful tool for doctors, as it can help create a clearer picture of where damage has occurred, making it easier to diagnose a person who has suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury.

What happens during an MRI scan?

An MRI scanner is a large tube containing powerful magnets. The person being scanned lies inside the machine while it conducts a scan of the brain.

You can usually eat and drink as normal before an MRI scan, and you will be given a questionnaire to fill in before the scan to help doctors understand your previous health and medical history.

Before entering the scanner, you should remove any metal objects from your body. This is because the powerful magnets in the scanner may react to these objects and can cause injury. It’s important to remove any earrings or necklaces, watches or bracelets, piercings, hearing aids and wigs. You should also avoid wearing clothing with metal (including zips, fasteners and buttons). If this is not possible, you will be provided with a hospital gown.

It’s important to tell the MRI technologist if you have any metal or electronic implants in your body. While most will be safe in an MRI exam, some implants cannot be scanned, including cochlear implants, some clips used for brain aneurysms, metal coils placed within blood vessels, and the majority of pacemakers. If you do have any of these implants, you need to inform the radiographer before entering the scanning area. The healthcare assistant or radiographer will go through a health and safety checklist with you before taking you to the scanner to help identify any issues there may be ahead of any scans taking place.

When the scan starts, you will lie on a flat bed which is then moved into the scanner. The procedure is painless and can last between 15 to 90 minutes, and won’t start until you are comfortable. Throughout the scan, you need to try and keep as still as possible, as any movement can disrupt the images.

The scanner will be controlled by a radiographer in a different room, who will talk you through the procedure. The radiographer will be able to see you through a monitor, and you can communicate with them while inside the scanner through an intercom. They will also provide you with guidance on health and safety in relation to the process and the dos and don’ts.

The scanner will make loud tapping noises throughout the procedure, which is perfectly normal. You will be provided with earplugs and headphones to muffle the noise.

If you are claustrophobic or particularly concerned about the scan, you can request a sedative in advance of your appointment. Children and babies may be given a sedative to help them stay still while inside the scanner.

Why do doctors order an MRI scan following a brain injury?

An MRI scan helps doctors gain a better picture of what’s going on inside the brain after a TBI. This medical procedure is extremely useful for doctors and allows them to gain important information, which will help them to make a diagnosis.

MRI scanning technology is ever evolving, and scans are beginning to show even more detailed images and detect more intricate damage to the brain, helping doctors to assess likely outcomes and symptoms and help with any suggested treatments.

The value of an MRI scan after a Traumatic Brain Injury

As doctors and medical staff learn more about brain injuries and technology develops, MRI scans offer essential support in treating patients. The images from newer MRI scans help doctors to visualise the effects of a brain injury, while previously they would have only been able to detect abnormal brain activity.

Every brain injury is different, and by asking patients to undergo an MRI scan, doctors can understand the specific issues caused by your injuries. This allows them to provide rehabilitation and support to help you in your recovery.

An MRI is an important part of diagnosing a TBI but is just one part of the journey to recovery. Our guide - ‘Crucial steps to take following a head injury or mild-moderate brain injury’ - provides advice and information on some things you should consider after a brain injury.

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