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CT vs. MRI: Understanding the Differences

When I first started in the imaging industry, one of the very first questions I had was what is the difference between a CT and MRI scan? After further exploration, I found this was a common question many people experience and often confuse. Both scans are used to capture detailed images inside the body. While both scans are low in risk and pain-free, there are differences that make each one a better option depending on the circumstances.

Easy Way to Differentiate CT and MRI

A CT uses radiation to capture clear images, similar to an X-ray, while an MRI uses a powerful magnetic field. When laying on the table, you can also tell the difference in the two machines. A CT is a large “Donut-Shaped” machine with a table in the middle whereas an MRI may be described as a “Tanning Bed” because you are placed inside a tunnel for the scan. Another big difference is the length of each scan, a CT is much faster than an MRI.  Most likely, your doctor will recommend the appropriate scan based on your needs and conditions.

CT scan vs. MRI
“Donut Shape” vs. “Tanning Bed”

What is a CT Scan?

A CT is essentially an X-Ray machine that is hooked up to a computer, in fact, the name CT stands for “computerized tomography.” There is a very thin beam that takes a series of cross-sectional images of structures inside your body and converts them into pictures. These pictures are known as image slices and they come together to create a final 3-D image (more detailed than an X-Ray could ever be). Because a CT employs radiation, this is a very quick scan and takes no longer than 5 minutes.

A CT is commonly recommended for:

  • Bone fractures, soft tissue, and organs
  • Detecting tumors
  • Monitoring cancer
  • Evaluating lung and chest issues
  • Finding internal bleeding
  • Patients who struggle with claustrophobia or have metal implants

What is an MRI scan?

An MRI is a scan can produce an even more detailed snapshot of the body and often excels is showing certain diseases that a CT cannot detect. An MRI is a very loud machine because it uses radio waves and a very powerful magnet to generate the pictures of areas inside the body. In fact, MRI stands for “Magnetic Resonance Imaging.” MRI’s are typically a longer procedure that will take at least 30 minutes.

An MRI is commonly recommended for:

  • Evaluating brain conditions
  • Detailed imaging of organs and soft tissues, such as torn ligaments or herniated discs
  • Showing difference between normal and abnormal tissue
  • Abnormalities of the spinal cord and brain

Here is an animated Video showing 7 differences between a CT and MRI scan.

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