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Your healthcare provider has ordered a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and you’re a little scared—of the test itself and of what it might find. But you can put your worries about the procedure aside: It isn’t painful, and there’s no need to alter your daily routine before getting an MRI.

Getting a closer look

Doctors use MRIs to diagnose conditions ranging from joint problems to brain tumors. Neurologists depend on the scans’ sensitive images of the brain and spine to diagnose things like multiple sclerosis, aneurysms and spinal cord injuries. MRIs can also assess damage caused by heart disease, pinpoint tumors in major organs, diagnose torn ligaments and detect breast cancer in women who have dense breast tissue.

The machine uses radio waves and strong magnets to create images of your internal organs, so you’ll be asked to remove any metal items, such as your watch, hair clips and underwire bra, before entering the room. If you have any metal in your body, such as a pacemaker, alert the technologist, since it may affect the scans.

You’ll be asked to lie on a table that slides into the MRI machine’s tunnel-shaped compartment. Once inside, you’ll hear loud pings around you as the machine takes images. You may be offered earphones to drown out the noise. You can communicate with the technologist via microphone and speaker system. If you’re claustrophobic, you can ask for sedation during the exam, or you can seek an “open” MRI, which has a less confining design. If you have kidney or liver problems, let your MRI technologist know beforehand. He or she may limit the use of injectable dyes, which are sometimes requested by physicians, during your scan.

The test may take up to an hour or so. When it’s done, a radiologist (a doctor trained to interpret the results) will analyze your scans, and your healthcare provider will share the results. Ask your provider when you can expect your results.