When Do You Need a Shoulder MRI?
Your doctor may recommend a shoulder MRI to evaluate subtle injuries to the labrum, which provides cushioning between the bones of the shoulder, the ligaments, or fibrous bands that hold the joints together, or the tendons, which connect the bones to muscles — providing a detailed map to use for future therapy or surgery. Shoulder MRIs are helpful in examining:
- Rotator cuff injuries
- Ligament injuries
- Tendon injuries
- Labral tears or injuries
- Tissue swelling or tears
- Injury after trauma
MRI is useful to diagnose whether an acute (sudden) or long-standing (chronic) labrum tear or a rotator cuff tear may be the cause of pain or loss of function. An MRI can also provide details on the severity of the tear, such as whether it is partial or complete. Sometimes an MRI only shows swelling of these soft tissue structures and not a tear. MRI images are helpful for a physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon because they provide a detailed map to use for future physical therapy or surgery.
Arthritis is usually best evaluated with X-rays. If the degree of shoulder pain or dysfunction does not agree with the x-ray findings, an MRI may be useful.
What to Expect With a Shoulder MRI
The MRI imaging may take 25 to 35 minutes, depending on whether special imaging sequences are needed. The complexity of shoulder or joint imaging may affect the time required to perform the imaging scan.
You will need to provide a complete medical history listing any medical conditions. Please tell the scheduler and the technologist if you have any of the following, which may make an MRI not possible:
- Metal in your body, such as metal fragments from trauma or surgery that may be an issue for the "magnetic pull" of the MRI.
- Any surgery anywhere on your body including your limbs, abdomen, brain, or heart.
- Aneurysm clips
- Auditory hearing implants
- Internal wires or electrodes
- Implanted pumps or ports
- Surgical mesh
- Any coils, stents, or filters
- Some external body modifications, such as:
- Body or face/makeup tattooing
- Permanent piercings
Some newer pacemakers or defibrillators may be compatible with MRI — check with your doctor. Current or prior metal workers may have small fragments in their eyes as an occupational hazard. You may need to have an x-ray before performing the MRI. Jewelry and piercings must not be present on your body for your safety in the magnet.
Please see our MRI Safety Form for more information.
You will lie on your back on a comfortable table that moves in and out of the MRI machine. The magnet of the MRI machine makes a loud, clunking sound. The technologists will fit you with comfortable headphones. You may choose to listen to music through headphones, making the magnet sound indistinct. Many patients find the exam soothing because of the music and may fall asleep. It is important not to move quickly or jerk during the exam. Jerking may cause irregularities in the images from signals of the magnets moving. An MRI of the shoulder is usually performed without the need for intravenous (IV) contrast dye. If your clinician is looking for a tumor, they may order a "contrast MRI," which involves the technician injecting a dye into your arm vein. Tumors tend to be vascular, and the dye enhances (highlights or outlines) the tumor.
Since an MRI produces hundreds of images, it will take time for the radiologist to interpret your results. Therefore, they will not be available right away. You will receive a call once your results are ready. We’ll also notify your ordering physician, who will discuss next steps, if necessary.
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Frequently Asked Questions About Shoulder MRIs
A Shoulder MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is an imaging technology that uses magnets and radio waves to produce detailed 3-D Imaging of the shoulder and joint. These signals are then converted to images for the radiologists to interpret.
MRI is commonly performed to distinguish normal tissues from injured or pathologic tissues. MRI is also used as a diagnostic scan to find the reason for a complaint or symptom. It is sometimes used to diagnose tumors.
You will be lying on your back on a comfortable table that moves into and out of the MRI machine. The magnet (within the MRI machine) makes a loud clunky sound. The technologists will fit you with comfortable headphones. You may choose to listen to music through headphones. It is important not to move quickly or jerk during the exam. Jerking may cause irregularities in the images from signals of the magnets moving.
An MRI of the shoulder is usually performed without the need for intravenous (IV) contrast dye. If your clinician is looking for a tumor, he or she may order a “contrast MRI." This means that the technologist will inject a dye into the vein in your arm. Tumors tend to be vascular, and the dye enhances (highlights or outlines) the tumor.
A shoulder MRI may be done to diagnose or monitor various shoulder conditions, including rotator cuff tears, labral tears, shoulder impingement syndrome, and arthritis.
A shoulder MRI is generally considered safe. However, it is important to inform your healthcare provider if you have any metal implants or devices in your body, as they can interfere with the imaging process.
There are generally no risks associated with a shoulder MRI, although some patients may experience claustrophobia or anxiety during the test. Additionally, the contrast material used in some MRIs may cause an allergic reaction in some patients.