MRI vs CT scan: commonalities & differences

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 of 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 scan uses multiple X-rays, taken at different angles, to produce the cross-sectional imaging.
  • MRI scan 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.

MRI scan vs CT scan

In general:

  • a CAT scan is best suited for viewing bone injuries, diagnosing lung and chest problems, and detecting cancers,
  • a magnetic resonance imaging examination is suited for examining soft tissue in ligament and tendon injuries, spinal cord injuries, cross-sectional images of brain tumors, etc.
  • A computed tomography (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 exposure while CT scans do.

MRI scan vs CT scan cost:

MRI vs CT prices by location and insurance type
Insurance type MRI  scan price CT scan price
High-deductible patient $1,500 – $6,000 $1,000 – $4,000
Insured patient (25% copay) $400 – $1,500 $250 – $1,000
Cash patient $250 – $600 $220 – $500

  • MRIs
     scans cost around $1,600 to $6000 on regular health plans while CT scans cost between $1,000 – $4,000 for a high deductible patient that hasn’t met his yearly limit
  • The difference is due to the cost of the machine and also the duration of the exam. MRI takes at least 30 minutes, while a CT scan can be done in as little as 5-15 minutes
  • If you choose the cash route, you can get MRI for as little as $250 while you can get a CT scan for about $220 (find a price near you)

Common uses for CT vs MRI scan

    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 imaging centers and it is the best at showing bone fractures, blood collection and organ injury.
    3. Spine – MRI scanners are the best diagnostic 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, epilepsy or neurological diseases, or looking at places where bone might interfere.
    5. Chest – CT is much better at examining lung tissue and often used to 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.

    MRI scan vs CT scan risks

    Both CT scans and MRIs pose some risks when used, so you should ask your doctor for a referral to ensure the imaging procedure is necessary The risks are based on the type of imaging as well as how the imaging is performed.

    CT scan risks include:

    • harm to unborn babies
    • A small dose of radiation
    • a potential allergic reaction to the use of dyes

    MRI risks include:

    • possible reactions to metals due to magnets
    • loud noises from the machine causing hearing issues
    • increase in body temperature during long MRIs
    • claustrophobia (for closed MRIs)
    • You should consult a doctor prior to an MRI if you have implants including:
      • artificial joints
      • eye implants
      • an IUD
      • a pacemaker

    Tips for getting the best price for an MRI scan or a CT scan

    • Shop around for the best price (see the facilities in your area)
    • Don’t hesitate to ask for discounts
    • Ask about all the fees. Do they include the cost of MRI, cost of the radiologist reading?
    • Take your doctor referral with you to another facility – your referral might be issued to one of the most expensive hospitals in the country
    • Check the recommendation of best machine type required for your scan – if you need an MRI for a knee or a shoulder, you don’t need the “Ferrari” of MRIs that will cost you thousands of dollars, a simple “Toyota” like MRI for $250 will completely suffice

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