What is an MRI or CT scan?

What is an MRI or CT scan?

And other test and scan questions answered.

When diagnosis is part of your Equipsme plan, it covers your referral and initial appointment with a consultant, plus things like tests and scans they need to do to find out what’s happening with your health.

That includes CT scans, PET scans and MRI scans. But what exactly are they, why are they needed and when are they used?

What is an MRI scan?

 MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. An MRI scanner is like a big tunnel made of strong magnets, and works by using magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images.

What happens in an MRI scan?

You’ll be asked if you have any metal inside your body, like a pacemaker or artificial joint. Then you’ll be asked to put on a hospital gown, and remove any metal items on your body like piercings.

The scan is conducted by a radiographer, who will show you the machine and help you settle down comfortably for your scan. You lie down and are moved on a bed into the machine’s tunnel. Some people can find this a bit claustrophobic, but you can shut your eyes and even listen to relaxing music while you’re in there.

The radiographer sits in a different room and gets all the images of you on a computer. You’ll be able to talk to them on an intercom inside the machine, and they may ask you to hold your breath or be really still in order to get certain images really clear.

How long does it take?

Depending on the area they’re scanning, scans can take from around 30 to 90 minutes.

Does it hurt?

You won’t be able to feel a thing, and an MRI scan is completely safe. The biggest danger is getting bored while the radiographer does their work.

What’s it used for?

An MRI scan can be used on almost any area of the body, and can provide very detailed imagery of organs, bones, joints and the nervous system. MRI scans can be used to help diagnose conditions, decide on treatments, and look at how effective previous treatments have been.

What is a CT scan?

A CT scan stands for Computerised Tomography, and actually uses x-rays to create images of the inside of your body. They’re sometimes also called CAT scans.

What happens in a CT scan?

You might be advised not to eat before your scan, or even to drink a special kind of dye to improve contrast and get the best pictures. Again, you’ll be asked about any metal in your body or on your clothing. You’ll then be given a gown and asked to lie down on a bed, and the scanner goes over you taking images of the affected body part. It’s more of a giant hoop than a tunnel which moves over you, so you’re not inside the machine like you are with an MRI scan.

Your radiographer will be in another room looking at the images on a computer, and you can talk to them through the intercom. They’ll need you to stay quite still so the pictures don’t come out blurry.

How long does it take?

Around 10-20 minutes, depending on the area they’re scanning.

Does it hurt?

Not at all. But is does use x-rays, which are a type of radiation. It’s generally not a good idea to have too many x-rays, or have them if they’re not really necessary, and for some people - for instance pregnant women - a CT scan might be unsuitable. Your doctor and radiographer will talk you through the procedure and weigh up the benefits and risks.

What’s it used for?

CT scans tend to be used for quicker or emergency diagnosis purposes. They can show damage to organs, bones and blood vessels, and pick up things like tumours, or blockages that might cause a stroke. That can help doctors find any problems, target them for further treatment, and track them over time.

What is a PET scan?

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans are another way to get 3D images of the inside of your body. PET scanners work by detecting radiation given off by a very mild radiotracer – a sugar like substance that’s injected into your arm before your scan. It looks at where the radiotracer builds up to build a picture of how certain areas of your body are functioning.

What happens in a PET scan?

For most PET scans, you’ll be asked to stop eating for about 4 to 6 hours beforehand, and you might be asked not to take any strenuous exercise for a day or so before, too. Once again your radiographer will also ask you to remove any metal jewellery and probably give you a gown to wear.

About an hour before your scan, you’ll be given the radiotracer as an injection. The one commonly used is called FDG (fluorodeoxyglucose), and you’ll be asked to stay fairly still to let it work its way through your tissues. The scanner itself is more of a doughnut than a tube, and you’ll be asked to lie down on the bed base which will move in and out of the scanner. The radiographer is in a different room, collecting the images on a computer.

How long does it take?

A PET scan usually takes around 30 to 60 minutes.

Does it hurt?

No – the most discomfort you’ll have is from having to lie still on your back for the length of the scan. The radiotracer itself contains very low levels of radiation. As with all radiation, that might not be suitable for all patients, but your consultant can help you decide what tests and scans are needed in your situation.

What is it used for?

PET scan images can detect cellular changes in organs and tissues earlier than CT and MRI scans – and can be used in combination with them. So you might have a PET-CT or a PET-MRI.

PET scans can help diagnose lots of conditions, including brain conditions like epilepsy and dementia, or heart problems. They’re also useful in the detection of cancer. Cancer cells grow fast and use a lot more energy than normal cells, which means they absorb more of the sugary radiotracer - which shows up brightly on the scan pictures.

Why are scans important?

Medical scans are particularly crucial in diagnosis – and early, accurate diagnosis is key in achieving better health outcomes. With many conditions, the sooner something is identified the easier it becomes to treat.

What diagnostic tests and scans can I get on my Equipsme plan?

MRI scans, CT scans and PET scans are included on Level 1, 2 and 3 plans, along with x-rays. We want to help you find answers, sooner, and medical imaging scans are some of the most powerful tools available.

How much would an MRI scan or CT scan cost me if I had to pay?

Depending on the types of test your consultant orders, diagnostic scans can add up to thousands of pounds worth of medical care. An MRI scan, for instance, can cost from anywhere between £200 and £1,500 depending on the body part that’s being scanned, and a single CT scan can be around £300-500 for a single body part.

Are there limits on how many scans I can get through Equipsme?

There are no specific set limits, but tests and scans must be medically necessary, ordered by your AXA Health consultant, and authorised by AXA Health before they go ahead to make sure that the condition/treatment you are claiming for is covered under the plan.

How do I access tests and scans?

You’ll need an open referral letter from a GP – either your own NHS GP or the 24/7 Equipsme GP. You can then submit that letter to AXA Health as part of your claim, and if your claim is eligible AXA Health can help you choose a hospital and a consultant they recognise, and book your initial consultation.

Find out more about how to see a consultant for diagnosis through your Equipsme plan.