Medical professionals can use an MRI to examine the structure and function of your liver. MRIs are highly accurate and don’t use radiation. However, they can be expensive and not everyone is a candidate for this type of imaging scan.
This article will explore what types of symptoms and conditions may require an MRI of the liver, what the scans can detect, and what to expect if you have a liver MRI scheduled.
An MRI scan is a noninvasive test a doctor can use to examine the structure and function of your internal organs. MRI technology uses a strong magnet to shift protons inside your body. It then uses radio frequencies to turn the energy from these protons into an image.
Contrast dye — usually developed with metallic solutions, including elements like gadolinium — may be used to speed up the movement of the protons. This process produces clearer, brighter images that may give your doctor a more accurate picture of the area being examined.
An MRI is particularly useful at examining non-bony or soft tissue areas in the body. The test can show different types of tissues in a single area.
An MRI of the liver can show the structure of the liver, as well as atypical growths. Your doctor will also be able to see blood flow within the liver, which can provide valuable information about vascular diseases that can affect this organ.
A liver MRI may be done with or without contrast dye. The contrast dye typically produces a brighter, clearer image than a scan done without it.
An MRI of the liver produces a highly detailed image that gives experts a high level of accuracy in diagnosing several liver conditions.
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An MRI scan is considered the test of choice for diagnosing both cancerous and noncancerous (benign) lesions on the liver.
MRI is often preferred over CT scans because MRI scans have no radiation exposure and the accuracy of their images does not depend on the skill of the technician performing the scan. What’s more, an MRI can be used to accurately locate the correct area for a biopsy, if one is needed to confirm a diagnosis.
Your doctor might order an MRI of your liver for several reasons. They can use this test to monitor how a condition progresses and the body’s response to treatment. They can also use it to help diagnose conditions like:
If you have a risk factor — such as genetics, alcohol abuse, or diabetes — for liver-related health disorders and you are experiencing symptoms, your doctor may choose an MRI as a highly accurate and less invasive diagnostic tool.
Symptoms that might signal a liver disorder include:
Here’s what you can expect before, during, and after an MRI scan.
Before the scan
Before you have an MRI of the liver, your doctor will review your medical history and any allergies you may have —especially to contrast solutions. You may not be a candidate for an MRI if you have implanted devices that could be dislodged or moved by the magnets in the MRI machine.
If you are cleared to safely undergo an MRI scan, your doctor will help you schedule a time for the procedure. An MRI may be done in a hospital, medical office, or outpatient facility.
In many cases, your doctor will ask you to avoid eating or drinking for 4 hours before your test, although medications with sips of water are usually okay.
You will be asked to remove your clothing and change into a gown when you arrive for the scan. You should remove any jewelry or devices that contain metal.
During the scan
When you are ready for your scan, you will be taken to the examination area and asked to lie down on the scanner table. This table slides in and out of the MRI machine. You may be offered headphones and music selections during your scan, since the machine that performs the scan can be loud.
You won’t feel anything during your MRI besides the movement in and out of the scanner. Be sure to tell your technician if you become claustrophobic or anxious during the test. It’s important to remain as still as possible during the scan for the best images.
The entire process may take about 1 hour, though your actual time in the scanner will depend on:
- your body size and shape
- what areas your doctor wants examined
- whether you receive contrast dye
- how still you stay during the scan
Are MRIs painful?
An MRI shouldn’t cause you any pain. If you are having an MRI scan with contrast dye, you may need to have a peripheral intravenous device (IV) placed to administer the contrast solution. These dyes can make you feel warm and may not be used if you have known kidney concerns.
You may be sore after the scan where the IV was placed, and it’s possible to experience side effects from the contrast dye itself.
After the scan
When your MRI is complete, you can get dressed and go home if you have no other tests or procedures scheduled. If you had contrast dye with an IV, the IV will be removed.
You may experience light bleeding or tenderness at the IV site. You may also receive instructions if you were scanned with contrast about how much water to drink in order to avoid strain on your kidneys or other side effects from the dye.
How long it takes to get results from your scan will depend on why it was being done and who is interpreting the scan.
There are other options besides MRI for diagnosing liver conditions, but an MRI is often the most precise. Other diagnostic options for liver conditions can include other imaging tests like ultrasounds or CT scans, as well as blood tests or biopsies.
Some of the blood tests that can help diagnose liver function or disease include:
- serum bilirubin
- serum albumin
- international normalized ratio (INR) or prothrombin time (PT)
- serum alkaline phosphatase
- alanine transaminase (ALT)
- aspartate transaminase (AST)
- gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase
- lactic dehydrogenase
- mitochondrial antibodies
- serum alpha-1 antitrypsin
Your doctor may order one or more types of tests depending on your symptoms, as well as your personal and family medical history.
Can you have an MRI with a hip replacement or implant?
It may be possible to have an MRI after a joint replacement, but only if the hardware used is compatible with an MRI scanner.
Talk with the surgeon who performed your hip or other joint replacement if you are unsure about the safety of your implant in an MRI scanner.
Which is better at detecting liver disorders, an MRI or a CT scan?
An MRI can usually show more detail than a CT scan, and it doesn’t use potentially harmful radiation. MRIs are more expensive, though, and people with certain implanted devices may not be able to have an MRI scan safely. Talk with your doctor about the best option for you.
If I’m at risk for liver disorders, should I get routine scans?
Routine scans aren’t usually recommended unless your doctor is monitoring you for a specific health condition.
If you have a family or personal risk of liver disease, your doctor will suggest appropriate testing to check for the progression of any liver disorders.
An MRI is a noninvasive way to examine a liver for disease and other structural changes.
While the scan itself is painless, an MRI that uses contrast dye may require intravenous access. People who are claustrophobic or have certain types of implanted devices may not be a candidate for an MRI of the liver.
Talk with your doctor about your individual risk factors and health to see if an MRI of the liver is right for you.