What is a pelvic MRI scan?
An MRI scan uses magnets and radio waves to capture images inside your body without making a surgical incision. The scan allows your doctor to see the soft tissues of the body, such as muscles and organs, without your bones obstructing the view.
A pelvic MRI scan specifically helps your doctor to see the bones, organs, blood vessels, and other tissues in your pelvic region—the area between your hips that holds your reproductive organs and numerous critical muscles.
The MRI scan helps your doctor look for potential problems found in other imaging tests, such as X-rays. Doctors also use pelvic MRI scans to diagnose unexplained hip pain, investigate the spread of certain cancers, or better understand the conditions causing your symptoms.
An MRI doesn’t use radiation, unlike X-rays and CT scans, so it’s considered a safer alternative, especially for pregnant women or young children.
Since your pelvic area holds your reproductive organs, your doctor may order the test for different reasons depending on your sex.
A pelvic MRI scan is a useful test for both sexes if you have:
- birth defects
- injury or trauma in the pelvic area
- abnormal X-ray results
- pain in the lower abdominal or pelvic region
- unexplained difficulties urinating or defecating
- cancer (or suspected cancer) in your reproductive organs, bladder, rectum, or urinary tract
For women, your doctor may order a pelvic MRI to further investigate:
- irregular vaginal bleeding
- lumps or masses in your pelvic area (such as uterine fibroids)
- unexplained pain in your lower belly or pelvic area
For men, a pelvic MRI might look for conditions such as:
- an undescended testicle
- lumps in the scrotum or testicles, or swelling in that area
Your doctor will explain why they ordered the test, and what they will be looking for, before you have your procedure.
There are few risks from an MRI scan because the test doesn’t use radiation. However, there are risks for those who have implants containing metal. The magnets used in an MRI can cause problems with pacemakers or cause implanted screws or pins to shift in the body.
Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any of the following implants:
- artificial joints
- artificial heart valves
- metal plates or screws from orthopedic surgeries
- metal clips from aneurysm surgery
- bullet or other metal fragments
One complication that can arise is an allergic reaction to the contrast dye. The most common type of contrast dye is gadolinium. However, the Radiological Society of North America states that these allergic reactions are often mild and easily controlled by medication. Women are advised not to breastfeed their children 24 to 48 hours after they have been given contrast dye.
If you’re claustrophobic or have a hard time in enclosed spaces, you may feel uncomfortable while in the MRI machine. Your doctor may prescribe antianxiety medication to help with discomfort. In some cases, your doctor can sedate you.
Before the test, tell your doctor if you have a pacemaker or any other type of metal implanted in your body. Depending on your type of pacemaker, your doctor may suggest another method for inspecting your pelvic area, such as a CT scan. However, some pacemaker models can be reprogrammed before an MRI so they don’t experience a disruption.
Also, because the MRI uses magnets, it can attract metals. Tell your doctor if you have any type of metal in your body from procedures or accidents. You’ll also need to remove any metal from your body, including jewelry and body piercings, before the test. And you’ll change into a hospital gown so that any metal on your clothing doesn’t affect the test.
Some MRI examinations inject contrast dye into the bloodstream through an IV line. This helps provide a clearer image of the blood vessels in that area. The dye—typically gadolinium—can sometimes cause an allergic reaction. Tell your doctor about any allergies you may have, or if you’ve had an allergic reaction in the past.
In some cases, you will need to clear your bowels prior to the exam. This may require you to use laxatives or enemas. You also may need to fast for four to six hours before the exam. Women may need to have full bladders for this exam, depending on the purpose of their exam. Be sure to go over the necessary preparations with your doctor before your scan.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the magnetic field generated by the MRI temporarily aligns the water molecules in your body. Radio waves take these aligned particles and produce faint signals, which the machine then records as images.
If your test requires contrast dye, a nurse or doctor will inject it into your bloodstream through an IV line. You may need to wait for the dye to circulate through your body before beginning the test.
An MRI machine looks like a large metal and plastic doughnut with a bench that slowly glides you into the center of the opening. You’ll be completely safe in and around the machine if you followed your doctor’s instructions and removed all metal. You’ll lie on your back on the table that slides into the machine. And you may receive a pillow or blanket to make you more comfortable as you lay on the bench.
The technician may place small coils around your pelvic region to improve the quality of the scan images. One of the coils may need to go inside your rectum if your prostate or rectum is the focus of the scan.
The technician will be in another room and control the movement of the bench using a remote control. But they’ll be able communicate with you over a microphone.
The machine may make some loud whirring and thumping noises as it takes the images. Many hospitals offer earplugs, while others have televisions or headphones to help you pass the time.
As the machine takes pictures, the technician will ask you to hold your breath for a few seconds. You won’t feel anything during the test, as the magnets and radio frequencies, like FM radios, can’t be felt. A typical pelvic MRI lasts 30 to 60 minutes.
After your pelvic MRI, you’re free to leave the hospital (or imaging center) unless your doctor tells you otherwise. If you received a sedative, you’ll need to wait to drive until the medication wears off, or have someone drive you home after the test.
The initial results from an MRI scan may come within a few days, but your comprehensive results can take up to a week or more.
When the results are available, your doctor will review them with you and explain the images. Your doctor may want to order more tests to gather more information or make a diagnosis. If your doctor can make a diagnosis from the images, they may have you start treatment for your condition if necessary.