How to get an MRI – The 3 ways to get an MRI

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MRI of an L4/L5 disc bulge and L5/S1 disc rupture

Before we get to how you get an MRI, first lets go over what they and why you might want one in the first place!

What is an MRI

MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. An MRI uses magnetism and radio waves to detailed pictures of the inside of the body.

The images show cross sections of the body. An MRI can show up soft tissues in the body very clearly (compared to an X-Ray which looks at bony structures). MRI can be used on most areas of the body. It is an expensive scan to take, and should only be considered when the diagnostics of an MRI are needed. Depending on your symptoms you may be offered an X-Ray or ultrasound first instead of an MRI.

What can be diagnosed on an MRI?

A wide range of conditions can be diagnosed using an MRI:

  • most ailments of the brain, including tumours and dementias
  • sports injuries
  • musculoskeletal problems
  • most spinal conditions/injuries
  • vascular abnormalities
  • female pelvic problems
  • prostate problems
  • some gastrointestinal tract conditions
  • certain ear, nose and throat (ENT) conditions
  • soft tissue and bone pathology/conditions

Who can't have an MRI scan?

Because of the MASSIVE magnets used in an MRI there are a number of contraindications, situations where it's not safe to get an MRI:

  • a cardiac (heart) pacemaker
  • certain clips in your head from brain operations, i.e. aneurysm clips
  • a cochlear (ear) implant
  • a metallic foreign body in your eye
  • had surgery in the last 8 weeks
  • a programmable shunt for hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain)
  • if you are pregnant

How to get an MRI

When it comes to getting an MRI, there are three main options:

  1. A referral through an NHS consultant for free
  2. A referral through private consultant which costs £600+
  3. An immediate MRI, but with no consultant appt from £200+

The most popular, and safest, options are the first two. You are under the care of a specialist consultant meaning that if anything is found on your MRI they are best placed to advise on your treatment. Although the two private options are perhaps more reliable – as you are self-funding/paying - remember that in both instances, an MRI is not guaranteed; if your consultant doesn’t deem it necessary or appropriate, they have the authority to say no.

Through the NHS

As a rule, you’ll only get an MRI through the NHS if the doctors and consultants think it’s entirely necessary.

Normally, you would have had other investigations first such as x-rays, blood tests, or physiotherapy. Go to your GP and inform them of any symptoms you have.

In Cambridge, they’ll likely refer you to the Musculoskeletal Clinic, which provides a physio service. Here, you’ll go through a triage system to help them decide whether you need to be immediately referred to a consultant (normally at Addenbrooke’s) or whether you need to have physio/conservative treatment. If it’s the latter, a physio will separately assess whether to refer you to a consultant or continue with physio treatment. Once you’ve exhausted all options, or you’ve ended up at a consultant, you’ll receive a further assessment and, if deemed necessary, you will be sent for an MRI.

Be aware that although this is the free route to get an MRI, the process may take a number of months.

Private healthcare

Paying for an MRI privately can cost around £700-800, depending on your consultant and the body parts or number of body parts you need scanning.

First, go to your GP and ask them to write a referral, based on your symptoms, to see a consultant privately. In Cambridge you may be referred to the Nuffield Health Cambridge Hospital or Spire Cambridge Lea Hospital. You’ll need to see a consultant, have an initial appointment and, if necessary, you’ll then receive an MRI. You can use private health insurance or pay for it yourself.

Direct referral

The third option is to try and get an immediate private referral for an MRI.

I paid £250 to get a private MRI at Vista Diagnostics on my back (click here for a list of clinics that take self-referrals). There were no consultant appointments and no one looking after my follow-up care. So, although this is the quickest way to get an MRI, it does carry with it additional risks; especially if the scan highlights problems requiring further treatment.

If going down this route, I would recommend that you are working with an osteopath, a physio or another medical professional -  sports massage therapists, can’t refer you.

How to get an MRI - the 3 ways to get an MRI
Follow Vicki:

Sports Massage Therapist

Vicki Marsh MSc BA (hons) studied at Oxford University before training as a Sports Massage Therapist. With over 12 years experience she specialises in chronic pain & complex cases as well as coaching Crossfit & Weightlifters. She runs specialist workshops, creates online courses and has spoken at events such as COPA on how to grow a successful business.

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