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How — and Why — an MRI of the Gallbladder May Help Catch Early Cancer

gallbladder health MRI

Sitting just under your liver is a small, pear-shaped organ that stores and releases bile produced by the liver — the fluid that enables your body to assimilate fats. Supporting a healthy digestive system, the gallbladder connects to other organs through the biliary tract, with bile ducts shuttling bile from the liver to the small intestine.

Similar to other organs, the gallbladder is susceptible to diseases such as gallbladder carcinoma or gallbladder cancer. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans can be helpful in detecting cancerous lesions in the gallbladder.
Read on to learn more about MRI of the gallbladder and how to prepare for one.
 

What Is an MRI of the Gallbladder?

Imaging tests look for abnormalities such as infections of the bile duct (known as cholangitis), tumor masses, blockages from gallstones, or other signs of swelling and infection.

Using radio waves and magnets, MRI scans of the gallbladder show images of your organs and soft tissue without the use of ionizing radiation, such as those from X-rays.

The gallbladder MRI is considered to be a helpful tool for noninvasive imaging of benign and malignant gallbladder diseases and can, at times, help differentiate between abnormalities.

 

Did You Know?

There are two types of MRI scans for the gallbladder:

A Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) test is a specialized MRI scan that examines the hepatobiliary and pancreatic systems, including the gallbladder. An MRCP scan is less invasive than an Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) test, which requires more instruments inside the patient’s body, leading to possible complications.

Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) examines blood vessels surrounding the gallbladder to determine if any abnormalities — such as a tumor or gallstones — are present around the organ.

Repeated imaging tests, such as the ezra full-body MRI, help monitor your body across time and flag abnormalities in the gallbladder before they become serious health concerns.
 

What an MRI of the Gallbladder Might Show

Detailed images from an MRI scan of the gallbladder and bile ducts may show the presence of

  • Gallstones
  • Thickening of tissue walls
  • Polyps
  • Abnormalities in bile flow or concentration

These images aid healthcare practitioners in prescribing effective treatment for patients.

 

Learn More

Ezra’s full-body MRI examines the gallbladder and 13 other organs in less than an hour.

Why Would a Clinician Order an MRI Scan of the Gallbladder?

A health care practitioner may order a gallbladder MRI scan to uncover the cause of unexplained abdominal pain, which may point to hidden gallstones, biliary tract infections, obstructions in the pancreatic duct, or an untreated case of pancreatitis. In addition to CT scans or X-rays, health practitioners often use MRI images to aid in diagnosis of gallbladder disease.

Once an imaging test has been conducted, the health practitioner uses the images to help inform their understanding of the patient’s symptoms and decide whether surgery to remove the gallbladder, called a cholecystectomy, is necessary.

Common Diseases Impacting the Gallbladder

Disorders of the gallbladder can be quite painful and may lead to other health concerns. Below are a few common gallbladder disorders, as well as how an MRI scan may be used with each type:

  • According to a 2020 study, the incidence of gallstone-related disease in the Western world is on the rise. Gallstones are solid particles, collections of cholesterol, bilirubin, or a combination of the two that can form inside the gallbladder or within the bile ducts of the liver. They may migrate from the gallbladder to ducts of the billary tract, including the hepatic duct, the common bile duct, pancreatic duct, and cystic duct. Gallstones can obstruct a healthy flow of bile and cause various symptoms from biliary colic to gallbladder jaundice and acute pancreatitis. An MRI of the gallbladder, along with blood tests, helps to diagnose gallstones and related pathological processes.
  • Cholecystitis, or acute inflammation, is the most common disorder of the gallbladder. With symptoms of fever, pain, and leukocytosis (or elevated white blood cell count), this disorder is associated with obstructions in the gallbladder neck, pancreatic duct, or cystic duct. An MRI scan helps clinicians track cholecystitis, aiding treatment.
  • Biliary debris, or sludge, is a mixture of particulate solids from an overconcentration of bile in the gallbladder. While biliary sludge is often asymptomatic, it should not be ignored in patients with symptoms of billary colic, cholecystitis, cholangitis, or pancreatitis. MRCP imaging has been used to detect sludge; however, cost, contraindications, and patient cooperation may limit the use of MRCP in billary sludge detection.
  • In oncology, or the study of cancer, gallbladder carcinoma is known as a type of gallbladder cancer. Imaging may reveal an intraluminal mass, an irregular thickening of the gallbladder wall, or a large mass lesion replacing the entire gallbladder.
  • Gallbladder adenomyomatosis refers to the unnatural thickening of the gallbladder wall. This disorder may lead to abdominal pain or hepatic colic if left untreated. Gallbladder adenomyomatosis can sometimes be confused with gallbladder carcinoma. An MRI scan, along with other imaging modalities, is used to determine the precise disorder and follow up on any changes in the gallbladder wall after treatment.

Benefits of an MRI of the Gallbladder

A timely and accurate assessment is important in gallbladder treatment planning, especially for potential tumors or large gallstones.
 

Learn More

A pictorial essay from the Turkish School of Radiology suggested that MRI scans may offer superior soft tissue delineation of gallbladder lesions and biliary tree. The essay also indicated that although ultrasonography and Computed Tomography (CT) scans are more commonly used in investigating gallbladder pathologies, there may be increasing evidence to suggest the potential effectiveness of MRI scans.

An MRI scan may help differentiate between benign and malignant gallbladder disorders, potentially aiding in surgery direction and precluding patients who may not benefit from surgery. A 2021 study reported that early MRI scans might be useful in determining the origin of lesions in the gallbladder, which is an important piece of information clinicians may take into account when determining the course of treatment. Besides diagnosis, MRI can help determine the size of tumor or lesion in the organ and detect possible spread beyond the gallbladder.
 

Risks Associated With an MRI of the Gallbladder

There may be two instances of potential discomfort for patients undergoing a gallbladder MRI:

  1. The radiologist or medical professional may require the patient to receive an injection of a contrast dye such as Gadolinium to assist in cholangiography (examination of the gallbladder and surrounding areas). This injection helps bile ducts and the gallbladder show up clearly on MRI images. In rare cases, some people may experience discomfort at the injection point or as a reaction to the contrast dye.
  2. Since the MRI requires the patient to be placed into a large tube-like machine and lie still during the entire process, some patients may find the procedure uncomfortable. However, MRI scanners today have wide openings and are fully lit and ventilated, ensuring better comfort for the duration of the scan.

Typical Time and Cost of Screening

The average cost of an abdominal MRI, including imaging tests of your gallbladder and pancreas, is about $2,625 in the United States, with an additional $100 to $300 for the use of a contrast dye. Multiple factors determine the cost of an MR imaging test. Uninsured patients may pay more than insured ones, and outpatient clinics may charge less for the same scan compared to an inpatient facility. Location also affects out-of-pocket costs for an MRI.

A full MRI scan of the gallbladder may take between 30 and 60 minutes to complete. Factors that determine the length of an MRI scan include

  • Number of scans needed for a diagnosis
  • Area of the body to be scanned
  • Need for contrast dye injection

How To Prepare for an MRI Scan

An MRI scan may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Prepare for your MRI by completing the following beforehand:

  1. Take the MRI screening questionnaire: Most MRI facilities require patients to record their medical history, such as pregnancy, medications being taken, or other health conditions, prior to the imaging test.
  2. Inform the radiologist of any metal implants: Since MRI utilizes strong magnetic and radio waves to examine your body, metal items in your body such as knee replacements or pacemakers may be impacted.
  3. Arrive early for the exam: Give yourself around 30 minutes to prepare for the MRI. After checking in for your MRI, you maybe asked to:
    • Change into a hospital gown
    • Remove all jewelry, hearing aids, and other metal items on your body
    • Receive an IV of a contrasting agent to help with the imaging
    • Lie completely still during the MRI exam
    • Put on earplugs or headphones to protect your ears from intermittent loud noises

For more information, refer to the FAQs on preparing for an ezra MRI screening.

Gallbladder Screening: A Step Toward Long-Lasting Health

The gallbladder is a small yet powerful organ within your body. To protect your gallbladder from possible cancers, consider a routine health screening.

Ezra’s full-body MRI screening provides a picture of your overall health, allowing you to scan your gallbladder and 13 other organs in less than an hour. Book an ezra Full Body today.

By repeating these scans, health professionals can monitor a patient’s body across time, allowing them to follow up on their wellbeing, and detect potential abnormalities early. Such proactive measures may lead to lifesaving consequences. Gift a scan to a family member or friend.