What happens during a small bowel MRI scan?

This article will give you a run down on what to expect before, during and after your MRI scan, to help you to feel prepared for the appointment. To find out more about what a small bowel MRI scan is and how it works visit this page.

Before your small bowel MRI

How do I get ready for a small bowel MRI? 

You will need to fill out an MRI safety questionnaire beforehand and bring it with you on the day. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions, it is advised you inform the hospital before attending your appointment, as this may mean you cannot have the procedure. 

You may be asked not to eat for up to 6 hours beforehand so that your small bowel is empty.

When you are invited to your MRI scan, there will usually be a contact email and phone number in the letter, in case you have any questions or need to get in touch with the MRI team prior to the appointment.

You may be asked to arrive earlier than your scan time. This should be detailed on your appointment letter.

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What to bring to an MRI

  • You should wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothing e.g. leggings/tracksuits (hospital gowns will be available) with no metal zips or buttons (this includes underwire in bras)
  • Something to occupy you while you wait for your scan. Appointments can be long, so it’s worth bringing a book to read or something to do while you’re waiting to be called in
  • Any medication you normally take. Inhalers or sprays that you use should also be brought with you to the appointment
  • Cordial/squash to flavour the bowel prep drink. You will be given a bland but filling contrast drink to take and approximately 30-45 minutes to drink it. Some hospitals will allow you to add some flavour to make it easier to finish
  • Bring spare clothes in case of an adverse reaction to the drink. It is common to feel nauseous and bloated after your MRI scan due to the contrast drink. It can cause some patients to experience urgent diarrhoea, so may need a change of clothing

What NOT to bring to an MRI

  • Metal clothing and jewellery. This includes zips, belts, buttons, underwires in bras, glasses, etc. as mental items may get pulled by the strong magnet in the MRI scanner
  • Friends and family. You will usually be asked to come alone to an MRI scan. If you want to bring someone into the MRI room you should speak to the MRI team beforehand to see if this is possible. They will be asked to fill out the MRI safety questionnaire too
  • Young children. The NHS staff will not be able to supervise your children for you during your scan. If you bring children, you must also arrange their supervision
  • Valuable possessions
  • Metal objects, credit cards or valuables in your pockets

During your small bowel MRI appointment

What happens when I arrive?

After you check in for your appointment you will be asked to wait in the waiting room until a member of the MRI team is able to brief you on the specifics of the procedure and give you any instructions.  

Who carries out an MRI scan?

A radiographer operates the MRI scanner and a radiologist interprets the scan images

  • The radiographer
    • A radiographer carries out the MRI scan, and will talk you through what you need to do during your MRI
  • The radiologist
    • A radiologist is a doctor that specialises in imaging
    • The job of the radiologist is to interpret the images from the scan and make a diagnosis

What happens before your MRI scan?

Before you are asked to lie in the MRI machine, hospital staff will help you to get ready for the scan.

  • Someone will go through your MRI safety questionnaire with you and check it is safe for you to have the scan
  • You may have the option to change into a hospital gown, and you should ensure you have removed all jewellery, metal objects in pockets, and any other non-MRI safe items
  • You will be given approximately 500ml-1litre of a pre-MRI contrast to drink over a period of around 30-45 minutes
  • You may have a cannula inserted into a vein in your arm so that a contrast solution (gadolinium contrast - sometimes called dye) and/or buscopan can be given to you during the scan

What happens during an MRI scan? Step by step 

  1. First, you will be asked to lie on your front on a table attached to the MRI machine, which is a lot like a small tunnel
  2. You will be given pillows, receivers (which are like heavy blankets) will be placed on your body, and you will be given headphones that will protect your ears from the loud noises the machine makes and allow you to hear the instructions the radiographer will give you. You will also be given a buzzer to hold which you can press if you need to get the radiologist's attention at any point
  3. The table you are lying on will be moved into the scanner. The space in an MRI machine can be very confined. If you are experiencing anxiety or stress due to claustrophobia, you may be able to request mild sedatives. However, not all hospitals will be able to offer this, so it is worth speaking to your GP in advance if you think they will be necessary. (Note: if sedatives are taken, you must arrange transport home as driving is not permitted)
  4. The radiographer will operate the machine from a computer in another room which is behind a glass screen, but they will be able to see you and hear you
  5. While the MRI machine is working you will hear loud tapping/whirring noises. Some of these noises can be very loud. You will need to keep still throughout the scan so the images are not blurred. The radiographer will instruct you to ‘breathe in and hold’ at certain points in the scan. It's important that you follow their instructions
  6. Halfway through the scan, buscopan will be injected, and you may be given Gadolinium.  
  7. When the scan is complete, you will be moved out of the scanner. Usually, you will be able to go home shortly after the appointment finishes. The scan takes around 30-45 minutes in total

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What is having an MRI scan like?

  • Noisy – the MRI machine is loud. It makes repetitive, loud sounds that will last your whole scan. You will be given ear protection to reduce the noise
  • Boring – it takes approximately 30-40 minutes for a routine scan, but may take longer. During this time you will need to lie still and you will not be able to take anything into the scanner to keep you occupied
  • Uncomfortable – the scanner is not very spacious, and you will have to keep still to ensure the quality of the images. There is a possibility of bloating and diarrhoea as a result of the contrast solution and/or the buscopan injection

Are you put to sleep during an MRI scan?

No, you will be conscious throughout. Doctors will likely be speaking to you and may ask you questions and prompt you to hold your breath or tense muscles in your stomach and abdomen.

Can I go to the toilet during the MRI scan?

If you need to use the toilet you can get the radiographer’s attention by speaking (they will be able to hear you through microphones in the room) or pressing the alert button you have been given to hold.

After your small bowel MRI

What happens after your MRI scan?

Once you scan has finished the radiography team will check the images from the scan are of sufficient quality for the radiologist to interpret.

You may be advised to wait half an hour to see if you react to the contrast solution or buscopan. As the contrast solution can cause diarrhoea, you are strongly advised to go to the toilet as much as you can before you leave the hospital. It can also cause diarrhoea and cramps for a few days. Though the symptoms may be similar to IBD - this is not usually linked. There is little evidence to suggest that an MRI will induce an IBD flare. 

Your images will be added to the radiographer’s queue to be reviewed. Then, over the following couple of weeks, the radiology team will examine the images from the scan. Do not expect to get any results on the day of your scan. Results are usually available within a week or two and are generally sent to whoever requested your MRI scan (such as your gastroenterologist) to be given to you.

Worried about your MRI scan? – how to keep calm and come prepared

It is very normal to feel worried about your small bowel MRI scan. Especially the first-time, an MRI scan can be a daunting prospect. However, it helps to remember that the radiography team are highly experienced and are used to seeing people who are nervous about the scan, so there will be plenty of opportunity to voice your concerns and to ask questions.

Remember: it’s not as bad as you think it is going to be. Bear in mind that most people find that their first scan is the scariest, and MRI scans are generally considered to be a very safe procedure. Try not to think in terms of “what if…”, and simply take the process one step at a time.

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