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Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Head and Neck

What is an MRI?

  • A magnetic resonance imaging scan is also called an MRI. An MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take pictures of the inside of your body. This test helps caregivers see normal and abnormal areas of the brain. An MRI can show how and where blood is flowing in your brain. It can also help caregivers see how your brain is working.
  • An MRI can see tissues, bones, blood vessels, and joints in your head, neck, and spine. Joints are where bones meet. An MRI also shows your inner ears, orbits (eye sockets), sinuses, thyroid gland, and mouth.

Why do I need an MRI of the head and neck?

You may need an MRI for any of the following reasons:

  • You are having symptoms including headaches, dizziness, or memory loss. An MRI may help caregivers learn what is causing your symptoms.
  • An MRI can guide or help caregivers plan procedures, such as brain surgery or a biopsy. This is when a sample of tissue is collected from a body area. Functional MRI, which maps out areas of the brain, may be done before brain surgery.
  • If you are being treated for a disease, an MRI may show how well your treatment is working. It can also check if a disease that you have already been treated for has returned.
  • If you have a disease or condition that needs treatment, the results of an MRI can help you and your caregiver decide on the best options for you.
  • You need a medical device placed in your brain. An MRI may also be used during the surgery to insert the device. Medical devices include those used to decrease the movement problems caused by Parkinson disease. Another device that may be placed is used to take away pain that can occur after having an arm or leg removed (phantom limb pain).
  • An MRI may be done after a procedure to look for bleeding and other problems.
  • An MRI can check for diseases, such as Alzheimer disease.

What problems may be uncovered by an MRI of the head and neck?

You may need an MRI to help diagnose the following medical conditions:

  • Blood vessel problems: An MRI can show widened, narrow, or blocked blood vessels in the head or neck. It may also show abnormal growth of blood vessels.
  • Growths, such as a mass or tumor: An MRI can show a growth in one or more areas of the head or neck. This may include a growth on the lip or tongue, or in the nose or sinuses (air cavities in the bones of the face). A growth may be found in or on the thyroid gland or the brain. The MRI may show a growth in the eye socket or the ear. An MRI can show if a growth has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body. Lymph nodes are small organs in the body that fight off the germs that may cause infection.
  • Infection: An MRI may show an infection in the inner ear, sinus, or eye socket.
  • Stroke or brain damage: A stroke can happen if a blood clot prevents blood from getting to certain parts of the brain. When blood cannot reach an area of the brain, tissue may die. Brain damage can happen after a stroke or following trauma (a head injury). An MRI of the head shows the presence and extent of damage to the brain. It may also help caregivers predict recovery in a person who has had brain damage or who is unconscious.
  • Dementia: Dementia is a disease that may occur with older age, causing problems with memory, speech, and movement. One type of dementia is called Alzheimer disease. An MRI can show areas of the brain that have signs of dementia.
  • Epilepsy: Epilepsy is a condition that causes seizures (body movements that cannot be controlled). An MRI shows areas of blood flow in the brain and may help caregivers plan epilepsy surgery, if it is needed.

Why may I be unable to have an MRI of the head and neck?

Before having an MRI, tell caregivers if any of the following are true for you:

  • You are pregnant: Your caregiver may not want you to have an MRI during your pregnancy, unless it is an emergency. Tell your caregiver if you know or think that you may be pregnant.
  • You are allergic to iodine or dye: Dye (contrast liquid) may be used during an MRI. If you know that you are allergic to iodine (found in shellfish, such as shrimp) or dye, tell your caregiver.
  • You have metal in your body: This includes an insulin pump or a prosthetic (man-made) body part. It also includes screws or plates that may have been placed during surgery. Medicine patches that are used to treat a heart condition or for birth control may contain metal. Tattoos or permanent cosmetics, such as eyeliner, may also contain metal. These items increase the risk of burns and injuries during the MRI. Tell caregivers if you have any of these in or on your body. Tell caregivers if you have done welding or have worked with or around metal in the past. Tell caregivers if you have had a metal object stuck in your eye in the past. Having worked with of been injured by metal in the past increases your risk of still having small pieces of metal in your body.
  • You have a medical device in your body that contains metal: These devices include pacemakers, defibrillators, aneurysm clips, heart valves, shunts, and certain stents. Cochlear (inner ear) implants and intrauterine devices (IUD) may also contain metal.
  • You have claustrophobia: Claustrophobia is a fear of small, closed spaces. If you have this fear, caregivers may offer you medicine to help you relax or go to sleep during the MRI. Ask your caregiver if you may have a friend or family member in the room with you during the MRI. Ask caregivers what else can be done so that you can have an MRI.
  • You have trouble lying flat or still: You may have a medical condition that makes it very hard to lie flat or without moving for a period of time. If you cannot lie flat, or you have trouble lying still, tell your caregiver.

What will happen during an MRI of the head and neck?

  • You will be asked to remove any jewelry, and all removable metal objects. If you have a medical device, it may need to be turned off before your MRI. You will lie down on a table with your arms at your sides or over your head. Your caregiver may put padding and cushions around and under you. You may be given earplugs or headphones to decrease the noise of the MRI machine. The table will slide into the round tube in the center of the machine. You will hear loud banging, tapping, or chirping noises as the machine takes pictures of your head and neck. The noise is caused by the magnets in the machine moving during the test. You may be asked questions or to do certain actions during the test. These tasks can help caregivers see your brain at work. Actions may include moving your fingers in a certain order or making a fist. You may also be asked to extend your neck or open your mouth.
    Picture of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging closed machine
  • You will need to hold very still during the test so the pictures are clear. If you suddenly feel odd or feel a warm or hot area on your body during the MRI, tell caregivers immediately. You may need dye to help your body parts show up better in the pictures. The dye is given to you through an intravenous (IV) tube placed in one of your veins. Other procedures, such as taking a biopsy (sample) of tissue, may be done during the MRI. Ask your caregiver for more information if you need another procedure done during your MRI.

What are the risks of having an MRI?

  • If dye is used during the MRI, it may damage your kidneys. This risk is higher if you have diabetes or kidney disease. If you have metal in or on your body during the MRI, the metal may heat to a dangerous level and cause a burn. If you had surgery to have a coil, stent, or filter placed in your body recently, it may move out of place during the MRI. An MRI can make medical devices work wrong or stop working. You may have short-term hearing loss after an MRI.
  • If you do not have an MRI, a medical problem may not be found. If a medical problem is not found and treated, it may get worse. Without an MRI, your caregiver may not find a disease in the early stages when it may be treated more easily. If you have symptoms, such as headaches or dizziness, they may get worse. If you have a lump, it may grow bigger. Having an MRI before or during surgery helps caregivers plan for and complete the surgery. If you are being treated for a disease and do not have an MRI, caregivers may not know if the treatment is working. Your condition may get worse, and you may die. Talk to your caregiver if you are worried or have questions about having an MRI of the head and neck.

When should I call my caregiver?

Call your caregiver if:

  • You cannot make it to your MRI.
  • You think you may be pregnant.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

Learn more about Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Head and Neck

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.