Medical imaging plays an important role in keeping you healthy. Procedures like magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), computed tomography (CT scans), ultrasounds, and X-rays provide physicians with important information about your body.
There are many exciting advances in imaging that aim to paint a more comprehensive picture of your overall health. One procedure is a cardiac MRI.
Our Kaiser Permanente Tysons Corner Medical Center radiology team completes hundreds of cardiac MRIs every year. We are one of only a handful of medical centers in the mid-Atlantic who received the prestigious American College of Radiology (ACR) accreditation for our cardiac MRIs. ACR accreditation is the gold standard for quality in medical imaging. Our cardiac MRI doctors are specialty trained at world-class institutions to perform and interpret cardiac MRIs. At Kaiser Permanente, all our cardiac MRI examinations are directly supervised and interpreted by one or more of our board-certified physicians who have received specialized fellowship training in cardiac MRIs.
If your cardiologist or primary care physician suspects you have a heart condition that requires medical imaging to diagnose or treat, they may recommend you receive a cardiac MRI. But what is the purpose of a cardiac MRI procedure? How will a cardiac MRI improve your health?
We are excited to show you all you need to know about this procedure.
What is a cardiac MRI?
A cardiac MRI is a noninvasive diagnostic scan that can help doctors evaluate the structure of the heart and how well it’s working, as well as look for potential causes of abnormal heart function. The cardiac MRI uses large, powerful magnets, radio waves, and a computer to produce detailed pictures of the structures within and around the heart. Just like any other MRI, a patient will lie down on a table that slides into a cylinder-shaped tube surrounded by a circular magnet.
The magnets create a strong electromagnetic field that temporarily realigns water molecules in your body. Radio waves cause these aligned atoms to produce faint signals which are used to create images on three different planes. The images on each plane are analyzed by a computer, which then reveals a high-resolution image of the heart.
We use a state-of-the-art 3T MRI scanner. It is a new generation of MRI scanner with a stronger magnet that produces better images of organs and tissue than other types of MRI scanners. The procedure is painless. Unlike CT scans and x-rays, MRIs don’t use radiation to create images of the body, so there is a low risk of complications or side effects from the scan.
Who needs cardiac MRIs?
For certain heart conditions, a cardiac MRI is the best method for diagnosis. If doctors suspect you have any of these conditions, they may recommend you receive a cardiac MRI. Conditions include:
- Amyloidosis. This rare disease occurs when a protein called amyloid builds up in organs. Amyloid buildup can make organs, including the heart, not work properly.
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is a disease where the heart muscle becomes thickened.
- Hemochromatosis. This is a disorder in which extra iron builds up in the body to harmful levels.
- Myocarditis and pericarditis. These are types of inflammatory conditions of the heart.
- Congenital heart disorders. Congenital heart disorders are birth defects that affect the normal way the heart works.
- Heart failure. This is a long-term condition in which the heart can’t pump blood well enough to meet the body’s needs.
- Tissue damage from heart attacks. A heart attack causes heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes to die off, affecting the heart’s ability to pump blood.
- Heart valve disease. Heart valve disease occurs when one or more of the valves in the heart don’t work properly.
Some people, including those with certain implants or prosthetic devices, are not eligible for a cardiac MRI. Always talk with your doctor about any health conditions before undergoing medical imaging.
How do I prepare for a cardiac MRI?
Before the procedure, we review the patient’s electronic medical records and prior imaging exams to create a custom protocol for the patient’s MRI. We tailor the protocol to the patient’s specific anatomy and suspected heart condition. We want to ensure we are capturing images of the heart using the best imaging sequences and at the correct angles needed to effectively evaluate for any conditions the patient may be suspected to have.
At Kaiser Permanente, we have comprehensive electronic medical records that give us a comprehensive overview of a patient’s health and allow us to coordinate care by giving doctors accurate, up-to-date information. We know if a patient needs specialized imaging protocols because of a pre-existing or suspected health condition weeks before they come in for the procedure.
Usually, you do not need to follow any preparation guidelines for a cardiac MRI, such as changing your eating habits or skipping medications. But patients scheduled for a cardiac MRI should check with their physician.
What happens the day of the procedure?
When you enter the room, you’ll change into a gown and remove all jewelry, eyeglasses, hearing aids, hairpins, removable dental work, or other objects that may interfere with the magnets used in a cardiac MRI. If you require anti-anxiety medication due to claustrophobia, you’ll take that before entering the MRI scanner. (Note: You will need someone to drive you home if you take anti-anxiety medication.)
Your doctor may want to give you a contrast substance for the exam, which can help us visualize areas of the heart muscle that may be abnormal. You’ll get this through an IV in your arm, which will be placed before you enter the MRI scanner.
You’ll then lie down on a table. An MRI technologist will place small plastic patches on your chest. These patches contain sensors that measure the natural signals produced by your heart as it beats. We need to accurately measure the heart’s rhythm and movements to make sure we are capturing the best images during the MRI.
The MRI table will then move into a cylindrical tunnel housing the magnets, and the MRI will begin. Cardiac MRIs typically take about one hour. During that time, we give patients headphones and a special “squeeze” ball to communicate with the technologist facilitating the procedure. Through the headphones, you’ll hear breathing instructions to breathe in, breathe out, or hold your breath at certain times during the exam. It’s important to follow these instructions to make sure the images of your heart come out clearly.
Our cardiac MRI scanner is equipped with video screens that project relaxing images and calming scenes like koi swimming in a pond. Our patients can also request video goggles that play movies during the procedure. The goggles are particularly well-liked by our pediatric patients who may have a challenging time being still during the MRI.
How do I learn about the results?
After the MRI, one of our specialty trained cardiac MRI physicians carefully analyzes the images from the scan. Typically, thousands of images are obtained during each cardiac MRI exam. The physician also uses the images to create 3D models of the heart as it squeezes and relaxes, which can be a useful tool to determine if there are areas of the heart that are not functioning properly.
In a couple of days, your doctor will reach out to explain the results.
How could this procedure improve my health?
Cardiac MRIs can help diagnose heart conditions and help doctors craft a treatment plan. In many cases, the earlier a heart condition is caught, the better the outcome. With continued advances in medical imaging technology, our patients receive better care and live healthier lives.
My-Linh Nguyen, MD, is a board-certified radiologist at the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Falls Church and Tysons Corner medical centers. Sudip Saha, MD, is a board-certified cardiologist at the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. He sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Tysons Corner Medical Center.
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