MRI vs X-Ray: What type of imaging do I need?

Published: 17:30 pm, Fri February 10, 2023

How We Recommend Preparing For Joint Replacement Surgery

When you’re in pain, it’s frustrating to not have a clear image of what’s going on and how the pain can be fixed. For more serious orthopedic injuries, it’s likely you’ll need to get some sort of image or scan to better understand what treatment plan is best moving forward. 

This blog outlines the differences between an MRI vs an x-ray so you can feel more prepared for what to expect as you go into your orthopedic appointment.

When You Should Receive an X-Ray

If you’re experiencing pain and find yourself scheduling an orthopedic appointment, one of your first thoughts may be that you’ll need an x-ray exam, but what exactly goes on during this process? X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation that shows the calcium in your body, or your bones. 

An x-ray is a commonly used diagnostic tool in an orthopedic capacity because it is used for bone fractures. The x-ray will focus on the injured area so you must stay still for the images to come out clear. In order to protect yourself from radiation, the rest of your body will be covered with a lead apron. However, rest assured that the amount of radiation exposure from an X-ray is typically very low and these studies are extremely safe. 

X-ray images are more readily available compared to an MRI image, typically the x-ray will take five to ten minutes. Because of this, x-rays are a more cost-effective solution when it’s a necessary step in your treatment plan.

Typically, bone fractures (broken bones) are scenarios where you can expect an X-ray scan. X-ray images are also very helpful to diagnose arthritic conditions because they can show the loss of joint space between the bones. It’s best to schedule an orthopedic appointment first, so you can seek out a specialist's advice before moving forward with a treatment plan.

an orthopedic specialists looking at an x-ray scan on a tablet.

What Exactly is an MRI?

Unlike x-rays, MRI or magnetic resonance imaging uses magnetic fields rather than radiation to perform. Because of how it’s produced, an MRI usually takes 30 minutes to complete compared to an x-ray which is a much faster process. 

An MRI uses magnetic fields and the water in your tissues to align atoms in your body and in turn produces high-resolution images of your organs. These images can be from multiple angles so you can get a full picture of what’s going on and what’s causing your pain. 

As we’ll go into more detail below, MRIs in orthopedics are used for examining joints, soft tissues, ligaments, and tendons.

Benefits of Getting an MRI

Now that we’ve described a general overview of what each type of scan is and how they differ from each other, we’ll solely focus on MRI in orthopedics.

A significant benefit of getting an MRI vs an x-ray is that this type of imaging can differentiate between fat, water, and muscle tissue. An MRI sometimes can provide a clearer idea of what our orthopedic specialists need to do to get you back to feeling your best.

At Lancaster Orthopedic Group, our modernized MRI machine has the ability to expedite your imaging so our specialists can proficiently review and start organizing your personalized treatment plan.

“We are so pleased to finally offer MRI services directly at our LOG Granite Run office. It has simplified the scheduling process for patients and allows us to get the necessary imaging much more quickly. This gives us the information we need to proceed with the appropriate treatment plan.” - Corey R Troxell, DO, MBA

an example of an MRI scan

Common Injuries that Require an MRI

Knowing the difference between x-rays vs MRIs will help you have a better understanding of what type of imaging is best for your injury. At Lancaster Orthopedic Group, we use MRIs to examine injuries to the musculoskeletal system

This includes the following

  • Tendon and ligament injuries
  • Progression of arthritis 
  • Presence of tumors or infections 
  • Spine degeneration and herniated discs

Spine Injuries

Spinal disc bulges are a common reason for an MRI of your back. The lumbar area, or your lower back, is the routine spot for a bulging disc. When you have a bulging disc you may also feel pain in your hips, legs, and feet. In fact, you may not feel any symptoms in your lower back. 

Degenerative disc disease is another orthopedic injury that is known to need an MRI of your back. If the pain is targeted in your lower back, it’s a lumbar degenerative disease. If the pain is in the upper or middle of your back, it is known as a thoracic degenerative disease

In both cases, the degeneration can be caused by a variety of factors including 

  • Aging and arthritis 
  • Smoking habits 
  • Intense lifting or gymnastics 
  • Autoimmune diseases 

Discs and tissue around your spine can only be seen on an MRI machine. X-rays are only able to see your spine, or if you have injured vertebrae.

Joint Injuries     

Your knee is the biggest joint in your body and injuries to this area may involve getting an MRI appointment. MRI for your knees can help determine whether or not you’ll need surgery for your injury. 

Sports injuries like ACL and rotator cuff tears, arthritis, and infections like osteomyelitis are all orthopedic problems that can be further evaluated with an MRI. As we stated earlier comparing MRIs vs x-rays, an MRI can better examine ligaments and tissues that surround your knee. 


Tumors on Your Bone or Muscle Tissue

MRI exams are also used to view tumors and detect cancer within your body. Sometimes, pain in your body may seem like it’s one thing but without proper imaging and evaluation, you might not have a solid understanding of what’s going on.

Getting an MRI at Lancaster Orthopedic Group

Before your MRI at Lancaster Orthopedic Group, you should expect a phone call from our office asking a list of medical questions. It’s important to answer these questions accurately so we can ensure your safety during the MRI. 

On the day of your appointment, we will go over these safety questions again. Wear something comfortable and minimal jewelry as you will be asked to dress in a gown and take off all of the jewelry. 

At Lancaster Orthopedic Group, we want you to be as prepared as possible. That’s why we let you know the cost of your MRI appointment before you come to the office. You can also pay ahead of time with no hidden costs, so there are no surprises.

Gain a clearer understanding of where your pain is coming from with an MRI appointment. Call our Granite Run office at 717-560-4200 to schedule your appointment with one of our orthopedic specialists.

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