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What can a pancreas MRI help detect?

Key takeaways:

  • A pancreas MRI can see pancreatic diseases like pancreatitis, lesions and cancer.
  • An MRI is a safe, painless, fast, non-invasive, and accurate tool that helps healthcare professionals diagnose different diseases.
  • Early detection of medical conditions using advanced imaging tests like MRI are key to taking control of your health and getting the chance of a better prognosis.  

The pancreas is an important organ in the body that helps with digestion and blood sugar management. Like all organs, it is susceptible to many diseases that may have far-reaching consequences on the body. One of these is pancreatic cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, “Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the US and about 7% of all cancer deaths.” Additionally, in 2022, the organization anticipates more than 62,000 new pancreatic cancer diagnoses and close to 50,000 deaths.

However, early detection using advanced imaging techniques, like MRI, may help plan a successful treatment and offer a better prognosis.    

What is a pancreas MRI?

A pancreas MRI is an abdominal magnetic resonance imaging scan that focuses on the pancreas along with other organs in the abdomen like the kidneys, adrenal glands, bile duct, and liver. 

MRCP vs. ERCP.

A type of MRI called MRCP, or magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography, specifically looks at the pancreas along with the biliary and pancreatic ducts. It is a non-invasive technique.

While evaluating a cyst, the first step is to perform an MRI with contrast using MRCP. For patients who are unable to undergo MRI and/or MRCP, a dedicated pancreatic protocol CT scan is used as an alternative.

ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) is an invasive procedure that involves endoscopic assessment. It helps diagnose and treat certain digestive problems, including the pancreas and the bile ducts. During this procedure, a gastroenterologist inserts a long flexible tube called an endoscope that has a light and camera at the end into the mouth and down your digestive tract. 

As the endoscope nears the bile duct, a contrast agent is introduced and images captured using X-rays. The contrast agent allows the physician to see the bile ducts, the pancreas, and the gallbladder.

Note: Ezra does not offer MCRP.

What does a pancreas MRI show?

Doctor looking at an MRI scan results

A pancreas MRI may be ordered to follow up on pancreas disease symptoms or abnormal test results.The imaging of the pancreas using MRI can help healthcare practitioners assess abnormalities in the pancreas and the surrounding ducts. It can help them detect pancreatic pathologies, from pancreatic cancer to pancreatitis, cysts, and pancreatic lesions. 

Through advancements in MR imaging, this modality is also being explored for the study and ongoing management of diabetes. Blood tests have always been vital to diabetes diagnosing and management. However, due to the shortcomings of these, medical scientists are assessing the role of imaging techniques in diabetes study. 

Functional MRI and AI-powered MRI can help image the endocrine (insulin-secreting gland) part of the pancreas in an effort to learn more about diabetes. The information can play a vital role in not just staging and diagnosing diabetes, but can also increase our understanding of this disease.   

How an MRI may help with pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Pancreas MRI: patient listening to her doctor

Pancreas MRI is a valuable tool in diagnosing and staging pancreatic cancer along with assessing the efficacy of ongoing treatments.

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is the most common form of pancreatic cancer, making up almost 90% of all cases. Surgery is the only treatment option right now. 

A careful and precise assessment and evaluation of pancreatic lesions before surgery using MR imaging can help with accurate characterization of the tumor. This can help a healthcare team better prepare for surgery.  

Pancreas MRI vs. CT.

CT and MRI scans are both noninvasive and painless imaging tests. Healthcare practitioners use both to detect pancreatic cancer. 

While CT scans use X-rays, MRI scans use a combination of radio waves and a strong magnetic field. MRI scans are usually safer because they do not use harmful ionizing radiations like CT scans.

Currently, however, a special type of CT scan called multidetector-row computed tomography, or MDCT, plays a primary role in imaging patients with pancreatic diseases. Even so, an MRI is still often the most accurate tool for pancreas imaging.

A recent study that compared CT and MRI concluded that MRI was better than CT when helping detect pancreatic adenocarcinoma, giving healthcare practitioners a diagnostic accuracy of 89.1% vs 83.3%, respectively.

Your healthcare practitioner will use their expertise to decide whether to order a CT scan or MRI scan to look at the pancreas or any other organs.

What to expect from a pancreas MRI.

Usually, a pancreas MRI takes about 45 minutes. You’ll need to stay still and hold your breath for a few seconds. If you have trouble staying still, the scan may need to be redone.  

If you are ordered an MRI scan with contrast, you’ll be given a gadolinium-based contrast agent (used for image enhancement and visualization), usually through an intravenous injection. It can take time for the contrast material to travel through the body, which may increase the time of the scan.

Risks of pancreas MRI.

MRI is a safe and effective test to screen for abnormalities in the pancreas or elsewhere in the body. Because it does not use ionizing radiation, there is no risk of radiation exposure.

However, an MRI machine makes loud clicking noises, which can lead to discomfort and anxiety. In some cases when ear protection isn’t used, it may occasionally harm hearing. Another potential risk of MRI is the body heating up due to the strong magnetic fields applied during the scan. However, this is more common during long MRI examinations.

Some people may have an allergic reaction to the gadolinium dye used as a contrast agent. While this is rare, you should speak to your medical care team if you have any allergies or a liver or kidney problem. 

Note: Ezra doesn’t use contrast agents for pancreas MRI.

How to prepare for a pancreas MRI.

If you have any kind of external or internal medical implant – a cochlear implant, pacemaker, prosthesis, etc. – let your medical care team know before the test. 

Tattoo ink and certain types of makeup may also interact with the magnetic fields and may cause problems. It is best to not wear any kind of makeup or jewelry before you arrive for your MRI scan. If you have any tattoos, let your radiology technician know before the scan. 

Before the scan, you will usually be asked to remove your clothes and change into a hospital gown. This way, the metallic objects in your clothing like buttons or zippers won’t interfere with the magnetic field. 

For all details on how to prepare for your pancreas MRI, take a look at our FAQs

Proactive screening helps you take control of your health.

Elderly couple taking a walk outside

A pancreas MRI may help healthcare practitioners catch potential medical issues early so you can begin treatment right away.

The Ezra Scan is an MRI-based scan service that screens for signs of cancer and other abnormalities in all the major organs of the body. The Ezra Full Body scans up to 13 organs and is priced at $1,950 (or $180 a month) and the Ezra Full Body Plus, our most advanced service, scans up to 14 organs and is priced at $2,350 (or $220 a month). The Ezra Scan also includes a 45-minute consultation with a Medical Provider and mid-year check-ins.    

Note: A pancreas MRI is different from the Ezra Scan, which screens the pancreas but is not as focused and does not use contrast. However, Ezra can help detect general abnormalities inside your body. When used as part of a proactive, regular health screening regimen, it may help catch problems early, which can help you plan treatment options when they’re most effective.

To check your cancer risk, take our 5-minute quiz. To take control of your health, book a scan today.