What You Need to Know about Open MRIs

Do you know the difference between a traditional MRI and an open MRI? When would you use one over the other? Does it matter? Stony Brook Medicine Radiologist Dr. Matthew Barish explains the differences as well as other key information about imaging testing.  

What is an MRI?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is one of the safest and most non-invasive ways to see inside the human body. MRI uses high-power magnets and radiofrequency to capture images of bones, tissues and organs. It is used in diagnosing such things as multiple sclerosis, tumors of the pituitary gland and brain, strokes at their earliest stages, infections in the brain, spine or joints, and tendonitis. It is also used to visualize conditions related to sports injuries, and helps physicians evaluate masses in the soft tissues of the body, bone tumors, cysts, and bulging or herniated discs in the spine. MRI is especially useful to image the bile ducts, liver, pancreas and kidneys, providing better contrast than CT (computed tomography) without radiation.  

What is an open MRI?

An open MRI is an MRI machine that is configured differently, mostly for patient comfort. Conventional MRIs consist of a hollow, cylindrical structure that patients are sent slowly through. Being in such a narrow enclosed space can be challenging for individuals with claustrophobia. They also cannot accommodate people with wide shoulders or who are significantly overweight. An open MRI, on the other hand, looks more like a donut, with magnets above and below the patient and wide open sides. Some MRIs are referred to as open, but they may only have a shorter and wider cylinder, which provides some comfort but not the same experience as a truly open MRI. Stony Brook Medicine has the only truly open MRI in Suffolk County.  

Does an open MRI produce the same results as traditional MRIs?

Not always. Until recently, open MRIs could not accommodate the more powerful magnets used on conventional MRIs. As a result, the images they produced were less precise or lower quality. Stony Brook has invested in a 1T open MRI (the ‘T” stands for Tesla, which is a measure of the magnet’s strength). It is a high-field magnet, which is not only the most powerful currently available, but it is also significantly stronger than any of the other open MRIs being used in Suffolk County. This is important because the higher the magnetic field strength, the better the image quality. And the better the image quality, the more accurate the diagnosis can be.  

Is this high-field magnet safe?

Yes. There are very few risks associated with MRIs. They involve no ionizing radiation, which means they do not expose patients to potentially harmful radiation. People with implantable electronic devices, such as pacemakers, aneurysm clips in the brain, and implantable defibrillators and stimulators, should avoid them, as should anyone with metallic fragments in the eye as a result of working in machine shops. However, all medical devices have been tested for safety with the MRI, so we can double-check if patients have specific concerns. It is fine, by the way, for people with hip and knee replacements.  

    When you say that an open MRI is more comfortable, what does that mean?

    We mean that the entire experience is more comfortable for patients who may not be able to use a conventional MRI. Patients are not enclosed, so they can look out into the room. Children can bring in stuffed animals and other objects as long as they have no metal in them. Parents can hold toddlers while they are in the scanner. And patients can bring their own music to listen to on headphones. At Stony Brook, we do everything we can so that patients can relax. We do this for the patients, but we also do this because calm patients move and fidget less, which ultimately leads to fewer retakes, sharper images and more accurate results.

    For more information about Stony Brook Medicine’s Imaging Services, call (631) 638-2121.


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    All health and health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance, and treatment. The information is intended to offer only general information for individuals to discuss with their healthcare provider. It is not intended to constitute a medical diagnosis or treatment or endorsement of any particular test, treatment, procedure, service, etc. Reliance on information provided is at the user's risk. Your healthcare provider should be consulted regarding matters concerning the medical condition, treatment, and needs of you and your family. Stony Brook University/SUNY is an affirmative action, equal opportunity educator and employer.