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MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce 2D or 3D images of the structures inside your body, such as your heart, brain or blood vessels. When this scanning method is applied to the blood vessels, it also is sometimes referred to as MRA (magnetic resonance angiography). MRA helps your physician diagnose the following conditions:

  • Bulges in your aorta, called aneurysms
  • Tears in your aorta, called dissections
  • Narrowing of the arteries in and around your kidneys, called renal artery stenosis
  • Inflammation in your blood vessels, called vasculitis
  • Hardening of the arteries (called atherosclerosis) involving the legs or arms
  • Blockages in the major arteries that supply blood to your brain, called carotid artery disease

The MRA equipment consists of a table that slides in and out of a donut-shaped machine. A computer attached to the machine processes radio waves and magnetic fields to create 2D or 3D images.

MRA not only helps your physician diagnose your condition, it also helps treatment planning. MRA also may, in some circumstances, have advantages that other tests do not. For instance, MRA does not require X-ray exposure to detect narrowing of arteries, unlike computed tomography (CT) scans or angiograms.

What happens during an MRA?

Your physician will direct you to a special lab or room where a technician will perform the test. The technician will instruct you to change into a hospital gown and remove any jewelry or metallic objects that may be affected by the magnetic field. The technician may give you a sedative to make sure that you lie still during the procedure, because motion can result in poor quality images.

The technician will ask you to lie on the MRA table. The table slides slowly through a hollow, donut-shaped chamber that exposes you to magnetic fields and pulses of radio waves. These magnetic fields and radio waves are harmless and painless. The only discomfort that you may feel during the scan will be from lying still on the hard table in an enclosed area.

During the test, the technician may speak to you through a speaker that is inside the MRA room.

Sometimes the technician may inject a contrast dye into your hand or forearm to improve the quality of the images.

An MRA lasts between 30 and 90 minutes.

What can I expect after an MRA?

Usually you can expect to resume your pre-test activity, unless you required sedation during the examination. Your physician will instruct you to arrange for a ride home if you receive a sedative.

Complications from an MRA, such as a reaction to the contrast dye, are very unusual.