MRI vs CT: What’s the Difference?

A graphic showing the mri and ct scan symbols

MRI vs CT: the machines look the same and both have equally foreign acronyms. Are you trying to learn more about these imaging devices and understand the differences between them? Radiologists use the images from both of these scans to detect, diagnose, monitor, and treat a variety of injuries, disorders, and diseases. But they capture images very differently!


Knowing the Difference: MRI vs CT

Many factors contribute to why your doctor might suggest one of these scans over the other, but here are the most common:

  • Purpose: MRI scans are great for looking at soft tissues, tendons, ligaments, your spinal cord and your brain. CT scans are better suited for imaging injuries from trauma, staging cancer, and diagnosing conditions in blood vessels.
  • Power: CT images are powered by radiation, and doctors might prefer children, expectant mothers, and certain parts of the body to have MRIs to avoid radiation-related complications. Conversely, patients with metal implants from past surgeries or pacemakers cannot have an MRI because MRIs are powered by strong magnetic waves.
  • Part of the body: CT scans image bony material and blood vessels better than MRIs, and MRIs image soft tissues much clearer than CTs.
  • Pace: CT scans are typically far quicker than MRI scans. Doctors tend to use CTs in emergency situations because of their speed.

For more differences in the scans, check out this helpful MRI vs CT infographic:

(Text only version)

An infographic showing the differences between an MRI and CT scanIf you are having an MRI and are nervous about your comfort, learn about some ways to reduce claustrophobia and exam anxiety

Special thanks to Chief MRI Technologist Jamie Weathersbee and Chief CT Technologist Lorie Hubbard for helping put together this article!





Infographic Text: MRI vs CT
  • Radiologists use CTs to:
    • Diagnose injuries from trauma
    • Stage cancer/tumors
    • Find injuries from trauma
    • Diagnose infections
    • Assess emergency situations
  • Radiologists use MRI’s to:
    • Evaluate soft tissues
    • Diagnose tendon/ligament injury
    • Find spinal cord issues
    • Monitor brain and tumors
Average Duration:
  • CTs take 10 minutes
  • MRIs take 45 minutes- 1 hour
  • Powered by:
    • Strong magnetic fields (MRI)
    • Low doses of radiation (CT)
Parts of the Body:
  • MRI
    • Brain
    • Breast and heart
    • Spinal cord, organs, blood vessels
    • Joints and extremities
  • CT
    • Brain injury, skull
    • Lungs and heart
    • Abdomen, pelvis, and digestive organs
Difference in Images:
  • MRI creates very detailed 3D images of soft tissues
  • CT takes image slices and creates detailed images of bones, tissues, and blood vessels
Difference in Comfort:
  • Most people are comfortable with a CT scan. MRI scans can cause claustrophobia, anxiety, or discomfort due to the length of the exam
Difference in Cost:
  • Prices vary based on your insurance, contrast dye used, body part imaged, and duration of the exam. Typically a CT scan costs less than an MRI scan.
    • $1,200 average for CT
    • $2,000 average for MRI
  • MRI machines make loud noises, so you’ll receive headphones or earplugs
  • CT machines make soft, whirring noises and have flashing lights
Both scans usually use an intravenous or oral contrast dye. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have known allergies to such contrast dyes.
Radiologists use the detailed images from both CT and MRI scans to accurately diagnose medical conditions.

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