MRI for Kids: What is an MRI Exam?

A boy sits in front of an MRI machine before his exam

Parents, if your child is having an MRI exam, this is the information they (and you, too) will need to know. You can read through this “MRI for kids” information yourself or read it to your child. It should help calm exam-day nerves for the both of you! Feel free to check out other helpful articles on our blog about imaging in children, like this one that helps explain a CT scan, or this one about a helpful resource we have for helping kids with their imaging exams.

MRI for Kids: What is an MRI Exam?

An MRI exam is a way that doctors take pictures of the inside of you without ever even touching you! They use the pictures of your insides to find any problems so they can help you feel better.

The MRI machine is like a big magnet, and its magnetic field works with a computer to take pictures of what’s happening inside your body. The pictures won’t really make sense to you, but a special doctor called a radiologist knows just what to look for so that other doctors will know how to help.

The MRI machine looks kind of like a giant doughnut standing up. It has a bed that slides through its doughnut hole where the magnet will work to take pictures of you. Inside the doughnut hole, you’ll hear a lot of really loud noises that can be kind of scary, but we promise the machine won’t hurt you!

A child gets an MRI done as his mother watches

This is what getting an MRI looks like!

Why You Need an MRI Exam

Doctors can use an MRI exam to look at the squishy parts inside of you called your tissue. They’ll be looking at things like your brain, chest, stomach, hips, arms, or legs–wherever you hurt. Doctors then use the pictures from the MRI to figure out how to help you feel better.

Before the Exam

The person who will help you and make the MRI machine work is called the technologist. Before your MRI, make sure your technologist knows if you have been sick or have allergies. Tell them if you have any metal in your body because the MRI machine doesn’t like metal. You should wear loose clothes, or your technologist will give you a gown to wear during the exam.

You might need to have a dye called contrast put in your body. Contrast makes the pictures clearer so the radiologist can see better. A nurse will put the contrast in your arm or hand with a needle, but it won’t hurt long; it should only feel like a quick pinch.

During the exam, the machine is REALLY LOUD and makes beeping and thumping noises, so your technologist will give you earplugs or headphones to help block out the noise. You can also try being a technologist yourself by giving a doll an MRI before your own exam. At UVA, we have a toy MRI machine that makes the same noises as a real machine, so you can see what will happen to you before it happens!

A child plays with a model mri

Model MRI for Kids

In the exam, you have to stay very, very still like you’re a statue so the images don’t get blurry. If your parent or technologist thinks that you’ll need help staying still, they’ll give you something called sedation. This can be in a drink or medicine or with a needle. It probably won’t make you sleep, it just will help you stay still for the scan. If you’re getting sedation, you won’t be able to eat or drink anything for a few hours before your exam.

Say Cheese!

You will lie down on the bed like you’re going to sleep, and your technologist will help you get in the position they need to take the right pictures. The technologist might use straps to help position you, and these will be like your seatbelts for the exam.

Once they’re done positioning you, your technologist will need to leave the room to work the MRI machine. Don’t worry, though, they’re not leaving you alone! They will be able to see and talk to you from the other room.

A boy gets an MRI exam

Getting an MRI

When the exam starts, the bed will move into the machine’s doughnut hole where it will take your pictures. The machine will not hurt you, but you’ll hear loud noises and might feel thumping on the bed. This is just the camera at work!

Remember to stay very still while the machine is taking pictures. If you move, the pictures will be blurry and the technologist might need to take them again. You will be able to take breaks and relax when the machine isn’t taking pictures, and your technologist will let you know when it’s okay to relax a bit. You might even be able to watch a movie during the exam so that you don’t move or get too bored!

After the Exam

When you’re all done, your technologist will come back and help you up. If you had sedation, you’ll need to rest up a bit, and if you had contrast, you’ll need to drink plenty of water. Your technologist might even have a treat waiting for you in the treasure chest!

A boy goes through the treasure chest with his mother after an MRI exam

You get to look through the treasure chest after your MRI exam!

Your technologist will make sure that the radiologist gets your pictures. That way they can find what’s wrong or make sure everything is okay. Your doctor will then tell you what you need to do next!

Parents, if you would like more information on MRI for kids, visit this site from the Radiological Society of North America and the American College of Radiology. At UVA Health System, we have specialized pediatric radiologists who understand how to image children and are trained to read the medical images of infants, children, and teenagers. Learn more about what UVA can offer your family.

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