Modern medicine has advanced well beyond X-ray. The two most commonly used tests besides X-ray are CT scan and MRI examination, both of which provide more detail than simple X-ray. If you need specialized imaging, it can be helpful to understand the operation and uses for a CT scan vs. MRI.

In some ways these two tests are similar to one another. They both show cross-sectional pictures of the body, but they accomplish this with different techniques. CT uses multiple X-rays, taken at different angles, to produce the cross-sectional imaging. MRI uses magnetic fields and radio frequencies. Because of the differences in techniques, the tests show the same parts of the body in different ways and are selected based upon the possible diagnosis.

In general:

  • a CT scan is best suited for viewing bone injuries, diagnosing lung and chest problems, and detecting cancers,
  • an MRI examination is suited for examining soft tissue in ligament and tendon injuries, spinal cord injuries, brain tumors, etc.
  • CT scans are widely used in emergency rooms because the scan takes fewer than 5 minutes,
  • an MRI, on the other hand, can take up to 30 minutes,
  • an MRI typically costs more than a CT scan,
  • one advantage of an MRI is that it does not use radiation while CT scans do.

Common uses for CT Scan vs. MRI

  1. Abdominal pain – CT is the preferred test. It is more readily available on an emergency basis and is very accurate. Ultrasound is used for children and pregnant women.
  2. Trauma – CT is present in most emergency departments and is the best at showing bone fractures, blood collection and organ injury.
  3. Spine – MRI is best imaging technique for the spinal cord and nerves.
  4. Brain – CT is used when speed is important, as in trauma and stroke. MRI is best when the images need to be very detailed, looking for cancer, causes of dementia, epilepsia or neurological diseases, or looking at places where bone might interfere.
  5. Chest – CT is much better at examining lung tissue and often used for follow up on abnormal chest x-rays. Low dose CT Scans are available and used with high risk smokers who need to be screening annually.
  6. Joints – MRI is best at showing tendons and ligaments.

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