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Shoulder MRI: What is it and what is it for?

Performing an MRI for shoulder scans allows the various components of this joint to be visualized. Thanks to this study, a correct and precise diagnosis can be made.

The shoulder is a joint that can present problems after a sports injury. However, it is also affected by poor posture or certain habits, such as carrying a backpack with only one shoulder. Additionally, a shoulder may be affected after a heart attack or cervical spine problems.

Today there are various treatments for shoulder problems. However, the first step is to have a diagnosis. Performing an MRI on the shoulder is an excellent option since it is a very precise, complete and high-quality study.

In this article, we have compiled the most relevant information about shoulder MRI. You will be able to read about:

  • How are shoulder problems diagnosed?
  • What is a shoulder MRI and what does it show?
  • In what cases is this study carried out?
  • What is the procedure like and how long does it take?
  • What are the risks of a shoulder MRI?
  • Do I need a prescription to have an MRI on my shoulder?
  • Preparations and contraindications
  • How long does it take to deliver results?


Diagnosis of shoulder problems

The shoulder is a joint made up of 3 bones: humerus, scapula, and clavicle. It also includes muscles, ligaments, and cartilage that protect blood vessels and nerve connections.

Shoulder pain can appear when any of these elements fail. In addition, it may be accompanied by difficulty in rotating the arm or lifting objects.

If you have this type of discomfort; it is best to go to a specialist. The doctor will ask you a series of questions as well as perform a physical examination to find out the cause of the problem. Suspecting a problem in the bones, they will ask you to have an X-ray or tomography. However; if the problem appears to be soft tissue, then you will need to have an ultrasound.

In some cases, the studies already mentioned are not enough to know the cause of the problem. Fortunately, doing an MRI on the shoulder allows us to visualize all its structures with great precision. Therefore, it is an excellent alternative to determine which is the appropriate treatment.

What is a shoulder MRI?

A shoulder MRI is an imaging test that uses radio waves and a very powerful magnet. While a shoulder MRI is much more expensive than an X-ray, the quality is also much higher. This is because it shows soft tissue, bone, and what lies beneath it. In this way, abnormalities can be seen that would be undetectable with other methods.

On the other hand, MRI is a safe technique that does not cause pain. Unlike tomography or x-rays, it does not emit radiation. Therefore, it can be performed on pregnant women and the elderly.

You can also find this study as rotator cuff shoulder MRI (that is, the set of muscles that help rotate the shoulder).

Shoulder MRI: what is it for?

There are abnormalities such as chondroid (benign bone tumors) that can hardly be diagnosed with an X-ray. Therefore, a shoulder MRI can be done to confirm this diagnosis. In addition, shoulder MRI helps to:

  • Evaluate the state of cartilage, muscles, ligaments and tendons;
  • Determine the amount of synovial fluid;
  • Assess status for inflammatory, neoplastic, or post-traumatic (after injury) changes;
  • Detect injuries related to frequent microtrauma (this usually occurs in tennis, volleyball and martial arts players);
  • Assess the condition of the nerves and blood vessels in the shoulder.

All these applications allow treatment planning or assessment of the effectiveness of an intervention. Sometimes a shoulder MRI is done before surgery.

When is it necessary to have an MRI on the shoulder?

Your doctor may order a shoulder MRI when these types of irregularities occur:

  • Degenerations and malformations (sometimes caused by osteoporosis)
  • Arthritis, either rheumatoid, psoriatic, or septic
  • Bone and soft tissue tumors
  • Damage to ligaments and tendons, for example, in the rotator cuff
  • Congenital bursitis of the shoulder
  • Aseptic necrosis of the humeral head
  • Chronic shoulder mobility problems
  • Suprascapular nerve syndrome (manifests with chronic pain and muscle weakness)
  • Joint problems related to an accident or sports activity
  • Duplay’s disease (premature and excessive wear of the soft tissues of the shoulder).


Shoulder MRI cannot be performed in the following cases:

  • The first trimester of pregnancy
  • Presence of implanted electronic devices (pacemaker, cochlear implant, etc.). This is not in all cases, but the manufacturer must guarantee that the device can function properly during the study.
  • Orthopedic implants made of ferromagnetic materials

How to prepare for a shoulder MRI?

You should prepare properly before a shoulder MRI. First of all, you should wear comfortable, fresh clothes without metallic objects. Otherwise, the metals could move and heat up, putting the patient at risk. Also, the presence of metals can distort the results.

Before a shoulder and rotator cuff MRI, you should remove metal objects (accessories, keys, glasses, etc.), electronic devices, and payment cards. In some places, you will be asked to change into a hospital gown. You do not need to go fast for a simple shoulder MRI.

Shoulder MRI: Procedure

A shoulder MRI is a painless and safe procedure. It takes place in a special room where the resonator, a huge cylindrical device, is located. To carry out the study, you will have to lie down on a special table that will move towards the interior of the device.

Once inside the resonator, the radiologist will be in constant communication with you through an intercom. However, it will remain in a separate room. It will give you some instructions like changing the position of your arm or hand.

The most common positions for a shoulder MRI are:

  • Lying down with arms loose along the body
  • Bent elbow and hand below the head
  • With one hand on the chest and one on the opposite shoulder

The resonator often makes loud, unpleasant noises while capturing images. However, you can use earplugs. At the end of the study, you will be able to return to your daily activities.

If you were given contrast, you will need to stay in the clinic for at least 30 minutes. If you receive a sedative, you will not be able to drive and rest is recommended until the effect wears off.

Finally, the results can take up to 2 days to deliver. This is because a detailed interpretation of the images is also done. With this, it can be determined if the shoulder MRI has a normal appearance, or if there are any abnormalities. Later, your doctor will have the necessary information to continue with your treatment.


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My name is Debra Cargill, I live in my home in Springfield, Massachusetts and have been looking for new direction in my life. I started blogging recently and I've discovered a new passion in life. This blog is all about health, wellness, life issues and about lifestyle in general where I cover a broad range of topics on the subjects....

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