Open MRI – An Alternative to Conventional MRI

Published on: December 30, 2022
Open MRI and traditional MRI machines.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is one of the best options for viewing soft tissues inside the body. Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys the confinement needed to perform this type of procedure. An open MRI is an alternative to conventional MRIs that may be right for some patients.

Conventional MRIs are performed using magnetic and radio waves to create images of the brain and internal organs or structures. To perform this procedure, patients lay on a table that goes into a small cylinder, laying still while the imaging is performed.

For some patients, the conventional MRI can feel very confining or uncomfortable. Larger adults and those with claustrophobic tendencies may not want to undergo the MRI procedure. Children also may not be good candidates for conventional MRI procedures.

Open MRI procedures require a specialized open MRI machine that does not need the enclosed cylinder to create the needed images. While an open MRI cannot be used for all procedures, it can be an alternative to the conventional method for some patients.

What Does an Open MRI Look Like?

Conventional MRI machines have a table that enters a tube. An open MRI machine is a table without walls, either open on all sides or multiple sides. The magnetic forces are above and below the table where the patient lies, but there is not a tube that encloses the patient.

The design on the open MRI machine can make the procedure more comfortable for some patients. Without the walls of the imaging tube, in an open MRI patients can relax easier without feeling confined. It also can be a better fit for large or obese individuals.

Claustrophobia? Open MRI Machine Options

Individuals with claustrophobia may have panic attacks when entering a conventional MRI machine. The small tube or cylinder can trigger anxiety that can impact their ability to relax and stay still. For patients with claustrophobia, an open MRI machine may be a better option.

There are patients that need an MRI for diagnosis of a health condition but refuse to have a conventional procedure performed due to their claustrophobia. Open MRI machines offer an alternative that can obtain many of the same images as a closed MRI machine.

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What To Expect During an Open MRI

MRIs, both open and conventional, are non-invasive and painless. The radio waves and magnetic energy combine with a computer program to create detailed images from the position of protons emitted by the machines. The biggest difference is the design of the machine.

An open MRI machine eliminates the tubular enclosure – a true open MRI has no sides at all, but some machines may have one or more sides.

There is nothing that needs to be done before an MRI for the patient. They can eat, sleep and take medications as normal. The only preparation is to remove any metal items before the procedure due to the magnets. The following items should be removed:

  • Hearing aids
  • Glasses
  • Jewelry
  • Watches
  • Dentures or any metal dental devices
  • Clothing with metal components

Once everything with metal is removed, the patient can undergo the procedure, which can take anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes, depending on what needs to be examined. There are functional MRIs that require the patient to perform certain functions during the imaging.

After an MRI, patients can return to normal activities. The procedure is not painful, only uncomfortable for those who have anxiety in small spaces if a conventional MRI is used. Open MRIs may be uncomfortable for those who have trouble holding still for long periods.

Are Open MRIs Available to Everyone?

Unless there is no other option, conventional MRIs are usually used for imaging. There are many more of these machines available and they can provide a better image for certain parts of the body. But there are times when an open MRI can be the best or only option.

For larger or obese adults, an open MRI may be the only option if they will not fit into a conventional machine. If a patient has claustrophobia, an open MRI may be recommended by their physician. Children who need an MRI may be more comfortable in an open MRI.

Another group of people who may qualify for an open MRI are those with certain metal implants. An MRI may provide better imaging for some patients with metal implants inside their body that cannot be removed. The lowered magnetic energy can produce better images with these patients.
Relaxed smiling woman after open MRI procedure.

When to Request an Open MRI

While the traditional MRI is recommended in most cases, an open MRI machine may fit some patients better. If your child needs an MRI or you have claustrophobia, you can request an open MRI. Most doctors will accommodate this request for the patient’s comfort when possible.

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