X-Ray or MRI: A Diagnostic Imaging Guide

Diagnostic imaging is a non-invasive test that produces a detailed picture of areas inside the body to help doctors diagnose various conditions. Some of the most common imaging tests include MRIs and X-rays. While these imaging tests share similar technology, there are key differences between the two tests, including the type of injury or condition your physician is investigating.

Knowing the differences between an MRI and X-ray can help you make an informed decision with your doctor about which imaging test is right for your condition.

What is an X-Ray?

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation similar to radio waves that are used to produce images of internal tissues, bones and organs. Areas within the body with high levels of calcium, such as bones and teeth, block the radiation, which is what causes them to appear white on the image. Soft tissues in the body, such as blood, skin, fat and muscle, allow the radiation to pass through and appear dark gray on the image.

X-rays are most commonly used to look at the bones and joints in the body, but sometimes are used to detect problems affecting soft tissue. Problems that may be detected during an X-ray include:
  • Bone fractures
  • Dislocations
  • Narrowed joint spaces
  • Scoliosis
  • Bone spurs

What is an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive imaging technology that uses radio waves to produce images of body structures. An MRI scanner is a long cylinder with a narrow tube in the center; a moveable bed slides inside the tube for scanning.

MRIs use magnets and radio frequencies to create images of body structures. To better explain how the technology works, it’s important to consider the human body’s structure: The human body is made up of six main elements, including oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphor. And roughly 60% of the body is water.

Every water molecule in the body is like a tiny magnet. When the water molecules are exposed to the magnetic field generated by an MRI scan, it causes these molecules to line up and spin at a particular speed. A secondary magnetic field turns the molecules to face new directions and once it switches off, the molecules realign, allowing the MRI scanner to peek inside the body and create an image.

MRIs are commonly used to investigate soft tissue injuries or conditions and are useful for detecting musculoskeletal conditions, including:
  • Cartilage loss
  • Spinal injuries
  • Joint inflammation
  • Torn or detached ligaments, tendons, muscles and cartilage
They are also useful in helping diagnose or monitor treatment for conditions such as:
  • Tumors
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Brain injuries
  • Developmental anomalies
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Dementia
  • Infection
  • And more.
The Steadman Clinic offers 3 Tesla (3T) MRI scanners at its Vail and Frisco clinics. This kind of MRI scanner includes a stronger magnet, which can take clearer images of organs and soft tissues than traditional MRI.

What Imaging Test is Right for Me?

When you make an appointment with your provider, an explanation of your symptoms will help your doctor select the correct type of imaging test. A good expectation before any imaging appointment is to remember that X-rays are best for taking images of hard tissues (bones, joints, etc.), and MRIs are best for soft tissues (ligaments, tendons). It’s possible that your provider will require both kinds of imaging tests to get a comprehensive picture of your injury or condition.

Contact The Steadman Clinic

At The Steadman Clinic, we offer full-service imaging including X-ray and 3T MRI to diagnose your orthopaedic condition or sports medicine injury. To learn more about our imaging services or to schedule an appointment, please call (970) 476-1100 or visit our website today.