February 9, 2023
February 9, 2023

Should You Get an MRI With or Without Contrast?

Reviewed By:
Should You Get an MRI With or Without Contrast?

Key takeaways:

  • Both MRI with and without contrast are non-invasive and painless.
  • Contrast MRIs use a contrast dye such as gadolinium or iodine, while non-contrast MRIs don’t.
  • A contrast MRI scan is safe for patients who aren’t pregnant and don’t have pre-existing medical conditions like kidney abnormalities.
  • Slight side effects such as dizziness, nausea, vomiting, pain at the injection site, and skin rashes are associated with contrast MRIs. They usually wear off within an hour or so.
  • Standard radiology specialty centers like ezra can assist patients needing MRI with or without contrast imaging.

The World Health Organization says that 30 to 50% of cancers are preventable. Part of this is due to early detection.

With companies like ezra, you can get screened without a physician’s advice and stay on top of your health. MRIs with and without contrast can help you detect cancer early so you can act early.

What Is an MRI?

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses magnets and radio waves to create 3D images of your body’s organs and structures. Radiologists then use these images to detect possible issues such as cancer.

This scan can detect medical conditions on different parts of your body, such as the brain, heart, blood vessels, bones, breasts, liver, kidneys, pancreas, ovaries (in women), and prostate (in men). In all these body parts, the MRI is especially useful for looking at soft tissues.

An MRI scan can help you diagnose a disease or injury. It can also monitor your response to treatments for tumors, cirrhosis (diseases of the liver), etc. Unlike CT scans (computed tomography) and X-rays, MRIs do not use radiation.

Types of Scans: MRI With and Without Contrast

There are two types of MRI imaging—MRIs with and without contrast. A contrast agent is a liquid injected into your body to make certain tissues clearly visible during the imaging process.

Contrast MRI

When you undergo a contrast MRI, a contrast injection such as gadolinium or iodine is given to you intravenously (injected into your veins). It will help your radiologist report accurately on how your body is working to identify an abnormality or disease.

For instance, a non-contrast imaging test is as capable as a contrast MRI in diagnosing a stroke. However, with a gadolinium-based agent, your physician can determine TIA (a brief stroke), thrombosis (a blood clot in the circulatory system), and venous insufficiency (a condition in which the veins in the legs fail to pump blood back to the heart). So, a contrast MRI can give details that a non-contrast MRI can’t provide.

Possible medical diagnoses from contrast MRIs include cancer, pituitary disease, vascular malformations, central nervous system aneurysms, acoustic neuromas, and seizure causes are completely evaluated with contrast MRI exams.

Non-Contrast MRI

A non-contrast MRI is also an effective exam for imaging your body’s organs. Though it doesn’t use contrast dye, it can still be quite accurate.

Contrast vs Non-Contrast MRI

Let’s review how a contrast MRI is different from a non-contrast one.

  • A contrast MRI uses a contrast agent while non-contrast MRIs don’t. As a result, the latter may require additional follow-up procedures to clarify abnormalities.
  • Contrast MRIs tend to be easier to interpret than non-contrast MRIs.
  • Contrast MRI can detect small tumors. They can give the physician more details about the location and size of the tumor and other tissues involved.

When a Contrast MRI Might Be Preferred

MRI with or without contrast: Elderly man running outdoors

With contrast, it’s easier to see which areas of the body may have issues. That’s because the abnormal tissue will stand out more than in a non-contrast MRI.

Your medical practitioner may suggest a contrast MRI based on your present condition and your medical and health history. It helps give a highly detailed image to assess a specific problem area inside your body.

When the radiologist adds the injectable dye to your veins or directly into a joint in a process called an arthrogram, it improves the visibility of inflammations, tumors, blood vessels, and certain organs’ blood supply.

Due to possible side effects, you shouldn’t have a contrast MRI without your physician’s advice. And in most cases of sports injuries, back pain, and work-related injuries, a health professional usually won’t recommend an intravenous contrast MRI exam.

Who Should Have a Non-Contrast MRI?

Non-contrast MRIs are especially recommended for pregnant women, patients whose kidney function are compromised, and for anyone who can’t typically use contrast MRI medical imaging.

Pregnant women are generally advised to take non-contrast MRIs unless their physician says otherwise. This is because gadolinium dye is associated with increased risks to the fetus.

So, your medical caregiver should only suggest you take a contrast MRI during your pregnancy if it’s expected to improve the fetal and maternal outcome (ACOG).

Generally, non-contrast imaging is popular with most orthopedic studies, since the imaging comes out clear without the contrast dye.

What can MRIs detect?

Here are common diseases and abnormalities that MRI scans help to discover throughout the body:

MRI of the brain, head, and neck:

  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Brain tumors
  • Stroke
  • Infection
  • Dementia
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Developmental anomalies

MRI of arteries and veins:

  • Aneurysms
  • Blood vessel blocks
  • Arteriovenous malformations
  • Carotid artery disease

MRI of the spine:

  • Pinched nerves
  • Herniated discs
  • Fractures
  • Spinal cord compression
  • Spinal tumors
  • Stenosis

MRI of the abdomen:

  • Renal arterial obstruction (complete blockage of blood to the kidney)
  • Renal vein thrombosis (acute kidney injury)
  • Glomerulonephritis (a condition in which the glomeruli of the kidney gets inflammation)
  • Hydronephrosis (enlargement of kidney from urinary reflux)
  • Acute tubular necrosis (a kidney disorder in which the tubule cells get damaged, leading to acute kidney injury)

Potential Side Effects of Gadolinium Contrast

MRI with or without contrast: Smiling elderly woman
Gadolinium-based contrast agents are considered safe. And there is no clinical evidence of adverse health effects of gadolinium when given to most patients.

However, in a small percentage of patients, the dye could cause a few side effects such as:

1. Allergic Reactions

After a few minutes of being injected, one in a thousand patients might display minor allergic symptoms. Severe allergic reactions are extremely rare, affecting one in every ten thousand patients.

The minor itchy skin rash usually wears off in an hour or so.

2. Pregnancy Risks

Gadolinium dye is associated with increased risks to the fetus.

3. Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis (NSF)

NSF is a rare disease occurring in patients with pre-existing severe kidney function abnormalities. While contrast dye usually leaves a patient’s system quickly, those with kidney function issues might have trouble processing the dye.

Therefore, if your medical professional suggests you or your family or acquaintance with kidney malfunctions go for a contrast MRI, ask, and try to understand why.

4. Other Side Effects

A contrast injection can cause side effects like headaches, dizziness, nausea, and pain at the injection spot. Those with allergies or kidney problems may experience additional symptoms.

Safety of contrast MRIs

Gadolinium can stay in the brain. While more research is needed, the FDA has not yet decided to regulate the contrast dye.  Large-scale studies are in progress, but it will take time to determine gadolinium’s long-term effects.

Talk to your health practitioner about whether a contrast MRI is right for you.  They can also screen you for allergic reactions or even suggest an alternate contrast agent such as iodine.

How To Prepare for an MRI With or Without Contrast

Now that you know the differences between an MRI with and without contrast, let’s see how you could prepare to get your screening.

  • Remove all metal jewelry, and let your practitioner know about any metal implants or pacemakers.
  • If you are claustrophobic, let your radiologist know so they can give you a sedative. However, you won’t be able to drive yourself home.
  • During the scan, lie still. Movements could blur the imaging results. But don’t worry — you can chat with your radiologist over an intercom, and they can see you through a television monitor.

Schedule an Appointment for Your MRI Without Contrast With ezra

Family of three sharing a meal

If there’s one thing we have found at ezra, it’s that early detection is key to beating cancer, aneurysms, or other diseases.

We offer the quickest and the most affordable full-body MRI service that screens for potential cancer in up to 13 organs. With ezra, it can take up to an hour for a full-body scan, but once our AI technology is cleared by the FDA, this would come down to 30 minutes. And our MRI is radiation-free.

You deserve to live a long and healthy life, which is why it’s important to get annual full body screening. Book an ezra Full Body today.