What Should I Expect from a Shoulder MRI?

Mary McMahon

A shoulder MRI is a medical imaging study which is designed to provide information about the internal anatomy of a patient's shoulder. This type of study is ordered when a patient presents with shoulder pain and a doctor wants to get a picture of what is going on inside the shoulder. Shoulder MRIs are also used to monitor the outcome of a shoulder surgery, to confirm that the site has healed well.

An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures of internal organs and bone structures.
An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures of internal organs and bone structures.

In magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), hydrogen atoms inside the body are excited with magnetization and hit with a radio frequency field which results in the generation of a magnetic field which can be detected by the imaging machine. One advantage to an MRI is that it does not expose the patient to ionizing radiation, and it also provides very high resolution images of the inside of the body, including differing areas of soft tissue.

A shoulder MRI may be necessary if persistent shoulder pain occurs.
A shoulder MRI may be necessary if persistent shoulder pain occurs.

In a typical shoulder MRI, the patient will be asked to change into a hospital gown and remove all metal belongings, including piercings, wedding jewelery, and so forth. If a patient has metal inside his or her body, as in the case of a pacemaker or pins used during orthopedic surgery, this should be disclosed to the technician administering the test. Once prepared, the patient is placed on a table which is rolled into the MRI machine, and the machine is turned on.

An MRI machine.
An MRI machine.

During a shoulder MRI, the patient is alone in the MRI room, but a technician can see the patient through a window, and there is a two-way communication system which the technician and patient can use to talk to each other. Patients should report adverse symptoms, such as extreme pain, so that the technician can stop the test. The patient also needs to hold very still inside the MRI machine so that a clear image can be obtained. If a patient knows that she or he will have trouble holding still, a sedative can be administered to help the patient relax.

Being inside an MRI machine can be very intense. The machine is extremely loud, and patients are often provided with headphones or ear plugs for their comfort. Some people also find it claustrophobic and may experience stress or panic attacks. Patients who know that they are not comfortable in confined spaces may want to ask if an open MRI machine is available to conduct the shoulder MRI.

A shoulder MRI can take 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the level of detail requested. Patients may experience a sensation of warmth in the shoulder, but the imaging study should not be painful. In some cases, contrast may be injected by request from a doctor. In an MRI with contrast, patients can experience additional side effects, including allergic reactions to components of the contrast dye. If a contrast study is requested, patients should ask about the side effects associated with the contrast being used, and they should inform their doctors about any allergies.

A shoulder MRI can take 30 to 60 minutes to complete, during which time the patient is observed from the adjoining room.
A shoulder MRI can take 30 to 60 minutes to complete, during which time the patient is observed from the adjoining room.

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Discussion Comments

stoneMason

A shoulder MRI is easy. One just needs to be calm. It's okay to ask them to stop if there is pain due to injury or panic. I have done that before. I took a break and went back in there later and felt much better. So I recommend everyone to take it easy, there is nothing to be afraid of.

burcinc

@ZipLine-- Oh no! I have never heard of anyone experience that before. It's true that MRI machines are very loud and it can be scary the first time. But they should have given you headphones with music and you should have been able to talk to them when you panicked. I have no idea why you had such a terrible experience.

I've had to get MRIs three times so far and one was a shoulder MRI. I was not too uncomfortable at any of them. I always listened to music which helps. And I agree with you that closing the eyes help because it is such a small space. But they do also have half open MRI machines now for patients with claustrophobia. It can be requested.

ZipLine

I had to get a shoulder MRI on short notice because of a car accident. I really had no idea what to expect and the doctor had sent me to the MRI room immediately. I was not given ear plugs or headphones, nor was I told that the machine was going to be very loud. Needless to say, I was very afraid when the machine started working. I panicked and wanted to get out of there. But I also knew that I was supposed to sit still and I really wanted to get it over with. So I closed my eyes and prayed until it was over.

I was very upset with my doctor and the technician when I came out though. I told them that I almost was going to crawl out of there because I was very afraid.

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