Health Check: MRI complications and how to avoid them

MRI machines are generally safe, but there are risks. (WJAR)

MRI is considered one of the safest imaging technologies.

An MRI does not emit radiation, but it’s not without risks.

If you've had an MRI in the past few years at Rhode Island Hospital, you know getting into the machine is like getting in to Fort Knox.

"Our policy is everyone gets changed in to hospital-supplied clothing," said Dr. Jeffrey Rogg, Medical Director of MRI for Lifespan.

That's something fairly new, since 2011. That’s when a patient was burned along her chest wall during an MRI here. She was wearing what looked to be a typical T-shirt.

"When we looked at it, it looked like a gray T-shirt,” said Rogg.

But what they couldn't see, and what a metal detector couldn't detect, were microscopic metals in that T-shirt, something seen more and more in athletic clothing.

"And when you look at the fabrics, they look like normal fabrics. You can't see silver. You can't see metal. You can't see anything,” said Rogg. (Rogg brought this hazard to light in a paper published in 2013 in the American Journal of Neuroradiology).

This goes for some tattoos and even some implants, and the list goes on. Everyone is carefully screened.

To understand why this happens, Rogg said it's important to know how magnetic resonance imaging works.

"You're creating an image by putting the patient in a strong magnetic field and then applying a radio frequency, high-powered radio transmission, that goes in to the person's body," he said.

What happened at Rhode Island Hospital wasn’t an isolated case.

"There have been, last I looked, 400 cases reported to the FDA of MR-related complications," said Rogg. "The most common are burns. About 70 percent of them are burns."

In Rhode Island, there's a coordinated effort to ensure there are layers upon layers of precautions to ensure patient safety. And that includes not allowing anything in to the room that might be drawn in to this powerful magnet, which was the case at a New York hospital in 2001.

"Oxygen was being required and someone came in to the scanner with an oxygen canister that launched in to the scanner like a cannonball and it ended up killing the child," said Rogg.

Rogg said there are no uniform, across-the-board policies in place nationally, but he said he believes that will change. He said the American College of Radiology should be issuing a paper next year, not just recommending added precautions, but requiring them.

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