MRI scan

How an MRI scan works

During a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, you lie in a strong magnetic field and radio-frequency waves are directed at your body. This produces detailed images of the inside of your body.

Most of the human body is made up of water molecules, which consist of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. At the centre of each hydrogen atom there is an even smaller particle called a proton. Protons are like tiny magnets and are very sensitive to magnetic fields.

When you lie under the powerful scanner magnets, the protons in your body line up in the same direction, in the same way that a magnet can pull the needle of a compass.

Short bursts of radio waves are then sent to certain areas of the body, knocking the protons out of alignment. When the radio waves are turned off, the protons realign and in doing so send out radio signals, which are picked up by receivers.

These signals provide information about the exact location of the protons in the body. They also help to distinguish between the various types of tissue in the body, because the protons in different types of tissue realign at different speeds and produce distinct signals.

In the same way that millions of pixels on a computer screen can create complex pictures, the signals from the millions of protons in the body are combined to create a detailed image of the inside of the body.

Last updated: 14 February 2014

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