MR Angiography (MRA)

Published On 07/11/2011

MR angiography (MRA) is an MRI study of the blood vessels. It utilizes MR technology to detect, diagnose and aid the treatment of heart disorders, stroke and blood vessel diseases. MRA provides detailed images of blood vessels without using any contrast material, although today a special form of contrast usually is given to make the MR images even clearer. The procedure is painless, and the magnetic field is not known to cause tissue damage of any kind.

What are some common uses of the procedure?

Many patients with arterial disease now have it treated in the radiology department rather than undergoing surgery in an operating room. MRA is a very useful way of finding problems with blood vessels and determining how to best to treat those problems.

The carotid arteries in the neck that conduct blood to the brain are a common site of atherosclerosis, which may severely narrow or block off an artery, reducing blood flow to the brain and even causing a stroke. If an ultrasound study shows that such disease is present, many surgeons now will do the necessary operation after confirmation by MRA, dispensing with the need for catheter angiography.

MRA has found wide use in checking patients for diseased intracranial (in the head) arteries, so that only those with positive findings will have to have a more invasive catheter study.

MRA also is used to detect disease in the aorta and in blood vessels supplying the kidneys, lungs and legs.

Patients with a family history of arterial aneurysm, a ballooning out of a segment of the vessel wall, can be screened by MRA to see if they have a similar disorder that has not produced symptoms. If an aneurysm is found, it may be eliminated surgically, possibly avoiding serious or fatal bleeding.

How should I prepare for the procedure?

The magnetic field used for MRA will pull on any iron-containing object in the body, such as a heart pacemaker, intrauterine device, vascular access port, metal plate, or pins, screws or staples. The technologist should know about any such item and also whether you have ever had a bullet in your body, whether you ever worked with metals, or if you have had a joint replacement. An x-ray may be taken to detect metal objects. The radiologist also should know if you have fillings in your teeth, which could distort images of the facial region or brain. Braces make it harder to properly adjust the MRI unit. You will be asked to remove hairpins, jewelry, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and any dental work that can be taken out. Some wigs contain metal and must be removed. Red dyes used in tattoos and permanent eyeliner may contain metallic iron, but this is rarely a problem. You should report any drug allergies to the technologist, and should mention if there's any possibility that you might be pregnant.

You can eat normally before the exam (unless told differently), but a young child should not eat or drink for about four hours if they will receive a sedative. Medications may be taken as usual. Some patients will feel uncomfortably confined (claustrophobic) when enclosed in an MRI unit. If necessary, you will be given a sedative to help put you at ease, though probably less than one in every 20 patients will need this.

What does the equipment look like?

The traditional MRI unit is a large tube surrounded by a circular magnet, in which the patient lies without moving for several seconds at a time. You will be placed on a wheeled bed that is moved into the magnet. Our patient-friendly unit is both shorter and wider than a conventional MRI unit.

How does the procedure work?

Exposing the patient to radio waves in a strong magnetic field generates data that are used by a computer to create images of tissue slices that may be viewed in any plane or from any direction. The magnetic field lines up atomic particles called protons in the tissues, which are then spun by a beam of radio waves and produce signals that are picked up by a receiver in the scanner. It is these signals that are processed by the computer to produce images. The resulting images are very sharp and detailed, and so are able to detect tiny changes from the normal pattern that are caused by disease or injury. Special settings are used to image various structures, such as arteries in the case of MRA.

How is the procedure performed?

You will be placed on a sliding table and a radio antenna device called a surface coil is positioned around the part of your body being imaged. After positioning you inside the MRI gantry, the technologist leaves the room and the individual sequences are performed. You are able to communicate with the technologist at any time using the intercom. Methodist Diagnostic Center allows a friend or, if a child is being is examined, a parent, into the room. Depending on how may images are needed, the exam will generally take from 15 to 45 minutes, although a very detailed study may take longer. You will be asked not to move during the actual imaging process, but between sequences some movement is allowed. Patients are generally required to remain still for only a few seconds at a time. Some patients will require an injection of a contrast material to enhance the visibility of certain tissues or blood vessels. A small needle is placed in an arm or hand vein.

When the exam is over you will be asked to wait until the images are examined to determine if more images are needed.

What will I experience during the procedure?

The technologist will make you as comfortable as possible, but at times the magnet may be within a few inches of your face. For those who become very uncomfortable when enclosed in a small space, a mild sedative is nearly always effective. You may notice a warm feeling in the area being studied. This is normal, but do not hesitate to report it if it bothers you. If you receive a contrast material injection there may be some local discomfort at the IV site. The loud tapping or knocking noises that are heard during certain parts of the exam disturb some patients; earplugs may help. You may bring your favorite CD to listen to during the exam or we can tune in to your favorite radio station.

Who interprets the results and how do I get them?

Our radiologist will analyze the results and fax a signed report with the interpretation to your physician. Your physician's office will inform you on how to obtain their results.

What are the benefits of MRA (Magnetic Resonance Angiography)?

Benefits

  • Detailed images of blood vessels and blood flow are obtained without having to insert a catheter directly into the area of interest, so that there is no risk of damaging an artery.
  • The procedure itself and the time needed to recover are shorter than after a traditional catheter angiogram.
  • MRA is less costly than catheter angiography.
  • There is no exposure to x-rays during an MRI study.

Contrast material may be injected, but unlike catheter angiography or CT angiography, which make use of iodine-based contrast material, the risk of an allergic reaction from MRA contrast is extremely low and kidney damage does not occur. Even without using contrast material, MRA can provide high-quality images of many blood vessels, making it very useful for patients prone to allergic reactions.

As with catheter-based angiography or CT angiography, it frequently is possible to defer surgery after getting the results of an MRA study. If surgery remains necessary, it can be performed with more accuracy.

Risks

There are no definite side effects from any type of MRI study including MR angiography. However, Claustrophobia may be a problem. When it is severe and not relieved by giving a sedative, an alternative imaging method may have to be tried. If a metal implant is present but goes undetected, it may be affected by the strong magnetic field to which the patient is exposed. In addition, if the implant is close to the examination site it may be hard to get high-quality images.

MRI generally is avoided during the first three months of pregnancy. Ultrasound is preferred at this time unless the woman might have a very serious condition that is best detected by MRA. The effects of MRA on the fetus, if any, remain to be determined. The general rule for MR imaging and other diagnostic studies in pregnancy is that they should be avoided unless there is substantial risk from missing the correct diagnosis because the procedure is not done. Women who are breast-feeding should inform the radiologist and ask how to proceed. They may pump breast milk before the exam for use until gadolinium contrast material has cleared from the body.

What are the limitations of MR Angiography?

MRA does not image calcium, as does CT angiography. The procedure should be avoided in any patient having a pacemaker, implanted neurostimulator, metallic ear implant, or metallic object within the eye socket. It should also be avoided if there is a bullet fragment or if the patient has a port for delivering insulin or chemotherapy.

The clearness of MRA images does not match those obtained by conventional angiography. Furthermore, images are acquired more slowly by MRA than by catheter angiography. Sometimes it may be difficult to separate images of arteries from veins by MRA.