MRI safety

MRI scanners, although free from potentially cancer-inducing ionising radiation found in plain radiography and CT, have a host of safety issues which must be taken very seriously. MRI safety can be divided into:

  1. main magnetic field
  2. varying magnetic (gradient) fields
  3. radiofrequency

NOTE: This article has been transferred from and was last updated in March 5, 1996. Review and edit pending. 

The main magnetic field of a 1.5 T magnet is about 30,000 times the strength of the earth's magnetic field. It is strong enough to pull fork-lift tines off of machinery, pull heavy-duty floor buffers and mop buckets into the bore of the magnet, pull stretchers across the room and turn oxygen bottles into flying projectiles. Deaths have occurred from trauma as a result of these effects. Smaller objects such as pagers, bobby pins and pens have been known to be pulled off the person carrying them.

The strong field also affects common devices such as pacemakers and watches. The magnetic reed switch in modern pacemakers is disturbed by strong magnetic fields resulting in possible deleterious effects to the patient with one implanted. Mechanic watches will "freeze up" in a strong field, sometimes permanently.

Many intracranial aneurysm clips are ferromagnetic and as a result experience a torque or twisting in a magnetic field. Not everyone with an aneurysm clip experiences a fatal haemorrhage when placed in a magnet, but several cases have been reported. 

Some types of heart valves (e.g. Starr-Edwards) are torqued in a magnetic field: however, this torque is less than the stresses that occur normally as a result of blood flow. Therefore heart valves are now considered not to be an absolute contraindication for MRI.

More of an annoyance than a safety problem is the ability of the magnetic field of a MRI machine to erase the information contained on the magnetic strip on ATM and credit cards. This may occur a short distance inside of the scanner room of a MRI machine.

Some metallic objects that are usually safe near an MRI machine are gold jewellery, shirt cuff-links and eyeglass frames. 

Varying magnetic fields are necessary in order to obtain images from MRI scanners. Changing magnetic field induce electrical currents in conductors (this is how an electrical generator works). In patients with metal in their body, the potential exists for electrical currents being induced in the metal with subsequent heating. This may occur with metal foreign bodies or some surgical implants. It does not universally occur and some patients with hip prostheses, for example, may be scanned without harm. 

Very rapidly changing magnetic fields as may be achieved with echo planar imaging can cause nerve stimulation. This stimulation can affect motor nerves with resulting muscle contraction as well as the retina with resulting flickering lights called magnetophosphenes.

The radiofrequency (RF) power that is capable of being produced matches that of many small radio stations (15-20 kW). As a result there is the presence of heating effects from the RF. In most pulse sequences, the heating is insignificant and does not exceed FDA guidelines. New pulse sequences such as for echo planar imaging (EPI) and some spectroscopy localisation techniques are capable of exceeding the FDA guidelines. Monitoring of the power deposition in patients is a requirement for FDA approval of clinical MRI scanners.

Potential for electrical shock exists with RF coils so proper grounding and insulation of coils is necessary. Any damage to coils or their cables needs prompt attention. Also looping of the cable to a coil can result in burns to patients that come into contact with them. It is best to avoid all contact with the RF coil cables.

Physics and Imaging Technology: MRI
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Article information

rID: 21842
Section: Physics
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Safety of magnetic resonance imaging

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    A potential safety risk: retained pacing wire
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