Elbow MRI Scans: Why Your Doctor Ordered One

According to your doctor, you need an elbow MRI. Depending on your situation, it’s probably something of a relief; you’re finally taking the necessary steps to treat your condition, and if you’ve been living with elbow pain for any length of time, you know that it affects every part of your life. With a proper diagnosis, you can start treatment, and magnetic resonance imaging can get you the answers you need.

However, you’ve probably got a few questions about the process, starting with the most obvious: Why did your physician ask for the MRI in the first place? Why couldn’t they diagnose the problem with a quick in-office visit?

First, it’s helpful to understand what an MRI is — and what it can tell your physician. As its name implies, magnetic resonance imaging uses an extremely strong magnetic field to create an accurate image of soft tissues. It’s an excellent, safe diagnostic tool for evaluating ligaments, muscles, cartilage, and joints, so elbow MRIs are fairly common.

Some situations that might require an elbow MRI include:

  • Joint disorders. While congenital elbow joint disorders are rare, issues like radial head dislocation can cause pain and a lack of mobility. MRIs aren’t always necessary for identifying these conditions, but an accurate elbow MRI could help to identify osseous structures (hard areas made of bone that aren’t where they’re supposed to be).
  • Tissue damage caused by infections. Bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (commonly called “staph”) can impact the soft tissues in the elbow, particularly after surgeries. That can result in conditions like osteomyelitis, and an MRI helps to identify the extent of the damage prior to surgery.
  • UCL damage. Damage to the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) usually affects athletes, and it’s associated with throwing motions. Pitchers, javelin throwers, and people who regularly perform overhead movements might tear or inflame the UCL; the condition typically presents with a gradual onset of pain, but it can also occur suddenly.
  • Epicondylitis. Commonly known as “tennis elbow,” this is inflammation of the tendons of the elbow. It occurs when you overuse the muscles in the forearm; you’ll typically feel the pain on the outside of your elbow.

    In most cases, epicondylitis can be easily diagnosed without imaging tests, but if your physician suspects a more serious issue, they might recommend an MRI to be sure.

Elbow pain often has an obvious cause, so MRIs aren’t always necessary. However, if a physician recommends a scan, you should go through with it, since the MRI could confirm a diagnosis and rule out other issues that could affect your treatment options.

What should you expect during an elbow MRI scan?

When you go in for your elbow MRI, you’ll answer a few questions, then proceed with the scan. You’ll need to remove earrings and other metal objects that could interfere with imaging. The scan could take an hour or more, but most elbow MRIs take from 30 to 60 minutes.

The process doesn’t use ionizing radiation, so it cannot raise your risk of cancer. While a small percentage of patients experience minor side effects due to the contrast dyes used during the scan (you can read more about contrast dyes here), those side effects don’t usually last for more than a few hours.

During the scan, you may need to keep your elbow straight or flexed at a 90-degree angle, depending on your condition (different positions allow for a better view of different tendons and ligaments). You will need to remain still in order to ensure an accurate diagnostic image. Most MRI machines are large tubes with openings at either end, but if you’re severely claustrophobic, you might opt for an open MRI scan.

Once you’ve completed the MRI, your physician will review the images, looking at the plica, ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), flexors, and other structures to identify the source of your elbow pain. At this point, your doctor can recommend a course of treatment.

Ultimately, an elbow MRI scan is a fairly simple and risk-free diagnostic process. It’s important to note that quality matters — to avoid additional MRIs, you’ll need to find a facility with state-of-the-art equipment and appropriately trained technologists. The good news: That doesn’t mean that the procedure has to cost an arm and a leg (or an elbow, for that matter).

It’s true that elbow MRIs can be expensive, particularly if you don’t have insurance; pricing can exceed $3,000 at some facilities. At BestPriceMRI.com, we help patients find qualified imaging facilities at affordable prices. You don’t sacrifice the quality of your care, and you can get an elbow MRI for as low as $249 — including the radiologist’s report, which is essential.

To get started, click here to find guaranteed prices in your area, or call our scheduling team at 888-322-7785 to book your appointment. You can also schedule your procedure by email; just drop us a note at [email protected] or visit our contact page to find an affordable elbow MRI today.