Head and Neck MRI

A head and neck magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) uses a magnetic field, radiofrequency impulses and a computer to produce detailed images of the organs, soft tissues, and bones within the head and neck region. Once the images are created, they can be viewed on a computer monitor, copied to a CD or transmitted electronically.

Reasons for a Head and Neck MRI Scan

There are many reasons the doctor may want an MRI of the head and neck administered. Some of the abnormalities investigated or diagnosed through the use of a head and neck MRI include:

  • Brain, thyroid or pituitary tumors
  • Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Infections
  • Congenital anomalies
  • Abnormalities of the cervical spine
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Bleeding of the brain
  • Certain disorders of the brain or pituitary gland
  • Vascular problems
  • Multiple Sclerosis

Physicians also use the MRI scan to detect brain abnormalities in patients with behavioral or cognitive changes, such as dementia, or with severe headaches or seizures. Head and neck MRI scans are also administered to diagnose and stage certain types of cancer.

Benefits of a Head and Neck MRI

An MRI scan is the most sensitive type of imaging test currently available, detecting abnormalities that cannot be seen with the use of others procedures. This test does not involve any exposure to ionizing radiation, making it safer than some other diagnostic tests. An MRI scan enables the physician to examine nearly every type of structure, including bone, cartilage and soft tissue through one noninvasive test.

The Head and Neck MRI Procedure

Prior to a head and neck MRI scan, patients should remove all metal clothing and accessories, including jewelry, eyeglasses, and hair clips since these may interfere with the magnetic field. Patients must advise their physicians about any implants or devices. In some cases, the procedure can be tailored to accommodate the specific situation, but for some patients, for example those with pacemakers, an alternative imaging test must be used. Sometimes a contrast material, typically gadolinium, is administered intravenously prior to the scan to highlight the targeted area. Patients may be advised not to not eat or drink before the scan, particularly if a contrast material is to be used.

During the head and neck MRI procedure, the patient lies on the examination table which moves through the MRI unit several times, capturing images from the magnetic signals. Although often provided with headphones playing music, the patient hears periodic loud banging during the scan. Because of the length of the procedures, approximately 45 minutes, MRI scans are not normally used in emergency situations.

Risks of the Head and Neck MRI Scan

There is no radiation exposure during an MRI scan and the contrast material used for this imaging test is less likely to precipitate an allergic reaction than that used in CT scans. Still, there is some evidence that the dye material used in MRI scans may be toxic and may exacerbate certain pre-existing conditions such as asthma, hypotension or kidney disease. Since the effects on the fetus or infant are not fully documented, women who are pregnant or nursing are typically advised not to undergo MRI scans.

Additional Resources

Back to top