Diagnostic technology offers a few options for determining what may be causing a health problem. Chief among these options are x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. Both offer detailed views of your body, but you may be better off getting one type of test instead of another. For orthopedic patients, the distinction becomes a little more important because the type of test you get affects how easy it is to see an injury.
X-rays are your classic diagnostic imaging test. You stand in one spot or lie on a table with a protective liner covering everything that isn’t being imaged. The technician stands in a protected booth and takes the number of images needed; this often takes just a few minutes. The images, if digital, are usually available immediately, but your doctor needs to interpret them. Non-digital film x-rays may take a bit longer to develop, but they still won’t take very long to be ready for interpretation. X-ray images are those classic white-on-black images that show the bones, several organs, and other pieces of tissue in gradients of white and gray.
MRIs have you lying on a platform with your head inside the MRI machine. Most MRI machines look like giant cylinders, but open MRIs are becoming more common. You lie as still as possible while the machine takes pictures that look like slices of several sections of the affected body part. The resulting images look like cross-section slices of the body part taken every few millimeters. (You could essentially animate the results by flipping quickly through the series of slices.) The test itself can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, and your doctor should have the results within a day if the results need to be transferred to another facility.
X-rays are usually cheaper than MRIs. Determining the actual cost of the test depends on several factors; Costhelper notes that the price of an x-ray can vary from $100 for a finger to $370 for a chest x-ray, though prices for abdominal x-rays and full-body scans are somewhat higher. Specialized x-rays, such as arterial x-rays, can soar into five figures without insurance.
The cost for an MRI is a little more stable, usually running between $400 to $3,500, with many major medical centers charging between $1,600 and $3,700, per the CompareMRICost website.
For a more accurate price in your location, look at what your insurance will pay, whether the clinic offers a cash discount, what the hospital or clinic charges, what the doctor charges, what you’re having x-rayed, and whether there were any additional supplies needed.
Concerns and Hazards
X-rays require the use of radiation, both from the machine and occasionally from a contrastive solution used to make parts of your body stand out more on the film. The contrast dye can set off allergic reactions in some people. Those with thyroid conditions should ask for a thyroid guard.
There’s no radiation with MRIs, so concerns about potential overexposure are nonexistent. The contrast dye used in MRIs is less of a concern allergy-wise, too. However, MRIs can be noisy; the technician should provide you with comfortable ear plugs. If the technician forgets, remind him or her — do not go through the MRI without earplugs because you could experience hearing loss.
In both cases, you need to let the technician know if you have any metal implants. These can show up on the x-ray film, and they can also interfere with the MRI.
Which One Is Better?
Your injury or condition will most likely dictate which test would be more appropriate. In the rare case that you could choose either test, know that x-rays are usually less expensive and give a good overall picture of the affected body part, while MRIs provide more detail that lets your doctor see how a segment of tissue or bone changes from one spot to another.
As for which would be used based on conditions, an x-ray would be appropriate if you have a bone condition such as a stress fracture, a foreign object (such as a projectile), or a tumor. These will show up clearly on the x-ray as solid, light-colored images. An MRI would be appropriate if you have a soft-tissue injury, such as a ligament, tendon, or muscle that’s been injured.
Note that in some cases you may benefit from having both tests done. For example, you might have an x-ray to get a picture of a stress fracture after an accident, and then an MRI to determine the extent of any damage to the surrounding muscles and joints.
If you have been having trouble with a joint or another body part, a diagnostic imaging test would be advisable. The Orthopedic Research Clinic of Alaska can help set you on the right track to recovery. Contact the clinic for an appointment so you can start feeling better.