A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test uses radio waves and a magnetic field to obtain images of organs, tissues, and other structures. It may show arthritis changes not always visible on other scans.

If your doctor suspects you have a type of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, he or she may use a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test to diagnose your condition.

Typically, the images from an MRI test are more detailed than other imaging tests, such as ultrasounds and X-rays.

Orthopedists, doctors who specialize in bone health, increasingly use MRIs to make a diagnosis of osteoarthritis. Doctors can also use these images to look for muscle and cartilage tears around joints.

Before an MRI, your doctor will review your symptoms and perform a physical examination.

They may use additional tests like X-rays, blood tests, and joint fluid analysis to rule out other possibilities and determine risk factors for osteoarthritis or other arthritis types.

That said, a radiologist may perform an MRI of a joint if X-rays or other tests are inconclusive.

An MRI is less commonly performed for osteoarthritis. However, its use is growing in popularity because it’s a highly precise imaging technique for evaluating bones and soft tissue in the joints.

An MRI can identify indicators of osteoarthritis that are not always easily visible on X-rays, such as:

  • damage to the cartilage of the bone
  • osteophytes, also called bone spurs
  • subchondral sclerosis, which is increased bone density or thickening in the subchondral layer of the joint
  • joint effusion, or excess swelling of fluid around the joint
  • synovitis, which is inflammation of the synovial membrane in joints
  • tears in ligaments, which may increase your risk for early osteoarthritis or cause pain or impaired function

What can be confused for osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear on the joints. Other types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), are autoimmune conditions and lead to inflammation. Additional conditions that may cause similar symptoms include psoriatic arthritis (PsA) or bursitis, for example.

However, imaging such a MRI can be helpful for distinguishing between degenerative symptoms or inflammatory symptoms.

For example, bone erosion, osteopenia, and soft tissue swelling are more indicative of inflammation, whereas bone spurs, sclerotic lesions, synovitis, and subchondral bone cysts with clear margins suggest degeneration.

During the visit, the MRI technician will ask you to get into a hospital gown and lie on a table. You’ll have to remove any jewelry or anything with metal that cannot go into the machine.

They will then move the table into the MRI machine so that the injured area is in the machine. This means that if your shoulder is being looked at, only the top half of your body will need to be in the machine.

Similarly, if they’re looking at your knee, they will wheel you into the machine so that the lower part of your body is in the machine.

They may secure the relevant areas with straps to make sure it is immobile during the test. The text usually takes about half an hour to an hour. Your MRI results will then be sent to your doctor, whom you’ll see at a follow-up appointment.

Learn more: Knee MRI Scan.

After having an MRI, you’ll have a follow-up visit with your orthopedist. He or she will first review the results of the images.

If your doctor sees tell-tale features of osteoarthritis on the MRI, then he or she review your symptoms, physical exams, and medical history and possibly give you a formal diagnosis.

Your doctor will also inform you of the severity or stage of the osteoarthritis. An orthopedist may also see another condition on the MRI, such as a muscle strain or cartilage tear.

Based on the holistic review of your condition and MRI results, your doctor will give you an appropriate treatment plan.

This may include following up with medication, physical therapy, and surgery. In other cases, you may be able to manage your condition with lifestyle changes, including activity modifications, weight management, and using ice as needed.

Sometimes, an MRI can show osteoarthritis-related changes earlier than other tests, which can help you get treatment sooner and slow the progression of the condition. In some cases, it may even help prevent surgery.

A doctor may refer you to an MRI if they think your symptoms indicate a type of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis.

While other imaging tests are commonly used, such as an x-ray for example, MRIs can provide more detailed images. This can help your doctor make a diagnosis.

As a result, orthopedic doctors are now using MRIs more frequently to diagnose osteoarthritis and other arthritis types.