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Ask A Sports Doc - What is an MRI?

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Nagging knee pain? Ankle sprains that won't quit? Wondering if your injury will haunt you for life or just keep you from 100% on the PT test? Ask a Sports Medicine Doc! Ehrling Bergquist Clinic at Offutt AFB has highly trained Sports Medicine physicians and Family Medicine physicians with vast knowledge of musculoskeletal and general sports health. We are ready to answer your pressing sports medicine and injury questions! Just email your questions to sportsdoc@offutt.af.mil

Submitted 2/21/2011
Hey Doc,
I've had really bad pain in both of my knees for a few weeks, mostly on the right knee. Running makes it feel worse. I keep taking ibuprofin, but it doesn't seem to help. I went to my doctor to see if I could get an MRI and figure this out, but he didn't think I needed one right now. What is an MRI, and should I be getting one?

-H.L.

Answer: MRI is a very specific test that uses a magnet to capture focused and very detailed images of the body. It is similar in some ways to an x-ray, but is much more advanced. Where an x-ray shows mostly bones, an MRI gives very in-depth pictures of all bones, ligaments and muscles and can identify problems in certain areas. Common sports injuries are easily diagnosed without MRI through history and a good exam by a proficient physician. MRI is used for sports injuries in a few specific situations, the most common of which are shown below:

#1 An MRI may be ordered after an injury or condition that could require surgery to confirm what your physician already suspects on physical examination. It is a way to determine how bad an injury is, and how to best prepare before a potential operation. If surgery is needed, this often helps the surgeon plan the best approach.

#2 If the physical exam and history of the injury do not completely match up, an MRI may be helpful. This could also include pain and symptoms that don't respond normally to the right treatments.


As you've probably noticed, professional athletes on television will often get an MRI immediately after an injury. This has something to do with finances and ownership of an MRI machine, but not completely. In that setting, although team physicians and trainers already know what the injury is, physicians need to know what shows up on MRI for a different reason. They are called upon to advise coaches on game planning and timing of a player's return rather than medical management.

For us armchair quarterbacks, an MRI may not be the best option to start. Often a plain x-ray or resting and waiting with treatment of symptoms will be the best approach. Stay in close contact with your physician. A good doctor will explain all the options and decide with you what testing to do and how to treat your specific injury.

Thanks for the great question H.L.!!

Disclaimer: This forum is not a substitute for clinical examination and is meant for general entertainment and educational purpose only. Not all questions can be addressed. Injuries should be diagnosed in person by a physician.