My Child Needs an MRI: What Now?
Last updated: March 2023
If your child has been diagnosed with pediatric MS, or if their doctor is concerned they may have the condition, an MRI may be needed.
What is an MRI?
An MRI is a type of imaging, just like an X-ray or CT scan. The letters MRI stand for magnetic resonance imaging. However, unlike X-rays and CT scans, there is no radiation used in an MRI. Instead, it relies on radio waves and magnetic fields. MRIs can provide very clear pictures of internal structures in the body, like the brain. This is why they are so important when diagnosing or monitoring pediatric MS.
Why are MRIs used in pediatric MS?
In comparison to adults with MS, kids with MS may have more evidence of disease activity in their brain.1 Doctors can look for lesions, or spots of inflammation, in the brain to diagnose MS and to monitor its progression over time. Your child may get an MRI during the diagnostic process, as well as additional MRIs over time to monitor how they are doing and if they are responding to treatment.
What to expect
Because MRI machines are so big, you will most likely have to go to a hospital or special imaging center to get the test done. The MRI machine itself is a large circular magnet. Many people say the MRI machine looks like a giant doughnut. A flat table runs in the middle of the machine (through the doughnut hole). Your child will lay down on this table during the test. The table will be moved into the machine so that the image can focus on their head. A special helmet may be used to help keep your child’s head in place, however, they will still be able to see and breathe as normal.
An MRI technician is there to help
An MRI technician will help with the entire process. Your child will have a call button that they can press at any time during the test if there is a problem or they are nervous. The length of an MRI can vary based on what area of the body is being imaged and what doctors are looking for. You can ask your doctor or the technician how long the process might take. Most MRIs take roughly 20-90 minutes to complete. However, in order to get high-quality images, your child will need to stay as still as possible. If significant movement occurs during the imaging, it may need to be started over and take longer.
Tips to make your child more comfortable
The machine will make very loud noises. This is normal and nothing is hurting your child. They will be given earplugs to help block out the sound. Some facilities may provide music for your child to listen to. They will also have blankets in case your child gets cold. Some places will even allow you to bring their own blanket or stuffed animal. You can call ahead of time to find out what your facility allows.
An MRI with contrast
Depending on the type of scan, your child may also be given contrast solution before the MRI. This is often given through an IV (intravenously) and is used to highlight different things inside the body. Before the test, you can ask your doctor or the technician if contrast will be used, and if there is anything special to consider. If there is a significant concern that your child won’t be able to stay still, sedation may be used. Like contrast, this is something you can talk about in advance with your doctor so that they can help determine the risks and benefits.
Without any sedation, your child will be able to leave as soon as the MRI is done. Additional recovery time may be needed if sedation was used.
There isn’t much to do to get ready for an MRI. Since the machine uses magnetic fields, making sure your child doesn’t have any removable metal on them is important. Glasses, jewelry, accessories, or belts with metal will need to be removed or not worn at all. This does not include metal braces or dental fillings. It is fine to undergo an MRI with these. Before the MRI, a nurse or the technician will ask you questions about your child’s past medical history. This includes any procedures that might have led to metal being put inside the body, like screws or clips. Telling medical staff about anything metal that could be inside your child’s body will be important in making sure they are safe.
If sedation is used, your child may be asked to stop eating or drinking before the test. Your imaging center will let you know if this applies to you before the day of the MRI.
Are there any risks?
Because the MRI machine doesn’t use radiation, it is safe and can be repeated many times. There are no risks to the test itself. However, if your child needs contrast or sedation, there may be some risks (including allergic reactions). Your doctor can talk to you about these risks to help you determine the best option for your child.
The images from your child’s MRI will be sent to a radiologist to review (a doctor who specializes in reading images of the body). They will then send these results on to your child’s doctor who will let you know the outcome.2
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