Boys Town

When it comes to injuries and diseases that require doctors to see past the surface of the body, patients are often offered either an MRI or a CT scan. Parents should be aware of the two types of scans to make informed decisions about their child's health.

MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The scan uses a pulsing magnetic field to create images of the inside of your body. The constant magnetic field that is produced from the machine bounces off of fat and water molecules in the body. It then creates radio waves that are transmitted to a machine and translated into an image of the body.

What should you expect when your child gets an MRI?

When it’s time for your child's MRI, he or she will slide into the machine while lying down. There are several types of MRIs, including standing machines and machines that require the patient to lie on his or her back. While getting an MRI, your child must be still to receive the best reading.

MRIs are typically used to diagnose issues with joints, the brain, heart or blood vessels. MRIs produce a loud sound when creating images, so it is likely that the technician will give your child a pair of ear plugs to prevent any noise-related discomfort.

CT stands for computerized tomography. Also known as a CT scan, this type of scan combines multiple x-ray images taken from different angles around the body. A computer processing system then puts the cross-sectional images together to create a more detailed picture than a plain x-ray would.

What should you expect when your child gets a CT scan?

While not completely silent, CT scans are much quieter than MRIs. The machine is open and moves around an individual as he or she lies down. A special dye may need to be ingested or injected to help highlight the area on the body being examined.

CT scans are typically used to diagnose bone fractures and tumors, to monitor cancer and to find internal bleeding.

Both CT and MRI scans are low-risk procedures, but there are some key differences.

• MRI and CT scan machines look very similar because of their doughnut shapes. However, they work differently and produce varied images.

• CT scans use x-ray technology instead of a magnetic field to produce images of the patient’s organs and bones. The use of the x-ray technology means radiation is used instead of magnetic fields.

• MRIs typically last 30 minutes, whereas CT scans typically last around five minutes.

• CT scans are more widely used, as they are typically less expensive.

Be sure to speak to your doctor about any concerns you may have about your child receiving either of these types of scans.


Dr. Deepak Madhavan is the executive medical director of pediatric neuroscience at Boys Town Hospital. Read more about Dr. Madhavan here.

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